Vigilante social media activists are taking on litterbugs in South Jersey. Equipped with Facebook and the dream of a cleaner coast, they are posting pictures and videos of garbage strewn on the beach. The end game? Shaming, embarrassing, and attempting to identify those who leave trash behind.
The impulse is understandable. Litter is a global crisis. Plastic waste causes $13 billion in destruction to our coastal environments every year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
Solutions are starting to get creative. Last year in Hong Kong, a marketing agency sent samples of garbage taken off the streets — condoms, cigarette butts, and chewing gum — to a lab in the United States to undergo DNA testing. Combining the data with demographic clues from the litter itself, the agency created 27 composite portraits for a series of “wanted” posters stationed throughout the city. The campaign reached nearly four million social media users around the world.
Meanwhile, frustrated police officers in Mexico City have started secretly filming litterbugs and branding the videos with the hashtag #VecinoGandalla, meaning “person who takes advantage.” On YouTube, each clip garners tens of thousands of views.
And now, South Jerseyans are joining the ranks of online litterbug shamers.
Why people litter
Approximately 75 percent of Americans admit they’ve littered within the last five years. Many people just don’t understand how devastating litter can be, while our laws don’t always reinforce the direness of the issue.
Take Wildwood. Over Memorial Day weekend, the beach was trashed by a group of partiers, and a video of the mess posted on a Facebook page for fans of the town was viewed more than 884,000 times.
Some point to an imbalance in Wildwood’s code book. The fine for littering here is only $133 — a slap on the wrist compared to, say, the $500 penalty in Stone Harbor or the $10,000 penalty in the always-pristine National Seashore area of Cape Cod. Meanwhile, the fine for cursing in Wildwood is $233. While dropping F-bombs in public may be unseemly, it doesn’t carry the threat of food insecurity for billions of people, like littering does.
So why do people litter? Several case studies have determined we are more likely to litter in places where litter is already prevalent, where we see other people doing it.
For another set of people, the act of littering can be fulfilling. “The sense of satisfaction might come from the ease of littering,” Mark Berg, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at Stockton University. “Or it might come from being a little rebellious. Either way, they’re getting something out of it.”
Social media activism
In April, Nikolas Pattantyus — a South Jersey paddle boarder known for the animal videos he shoots — spotted something disturbing in the dunes of Avalon between 48th and 50th streets: piles of beer cans, coolers, and other remnants of a big beach party no one had bothered to clean up.
“I was honestly sick to my stomach,” he said. “I filled the back of a pickup truck with five full garbage cans, four trash bags, five beach chairs, and a La-Z-Boy. Over the course of the cleanup, I kept hoping I would find something to incriminate those responsible.”
And Pattantyus did find something damming — the name of a woman with ties to a local yacht club written in marker on a canvas bag. A friend texted the information to two local detectives, but the officers’ hands were tied. Unless the offenders were caught red-handed, they said, there was nothing they could do. They also warned Pattantyus and his friend against slander.
Still, he decided to post a video of the mess on Facebook and let the court of public opinion judge the litterbugs. The following day, ironically Earth Day, a local newspaper, The Seven Mile Times, shared it on their Facebook page, with a stern reminder to treat the island with respect.
On the Cool Cape May Facebook page, this type of footage has been “blowing up recently,” according to administrator Ben Miller.
“Much of what we have to deal with on a daily basis is depressing enough, but seeing trash floating around in a protected wildlife preserve really cuts it for me,” wrote poster Craig Massey, who last March uploaded a photo of a discarded Mountain Dew bottle in the marsh.
In May, nonprofit Clean Ocean Action posted the results of their 31st annual Beach Sweep on Facebook. They found 7,594 plastic pieces and 2,246 straws on Jersey beaches in addition to some especially “ridiculous” items — a CD of Christmas songs, a ball of twine, and a screwdriver, for example.
Turns out, herd mentality doesn’t just apply to litterbugs, but to those who shame them.
“Seeing this type of thing online becomes a sort of catalyst for you to follow up or say something yourself,” said Chirag Shah, Ph.D, associate professor of information science at Rutgers University. “It happens with all kinds of topics — funny or silly or, in this case, socially critical. It’s not a new behavior — the internet is just making it easier to propagate ideas.”
Is it effective?
Shaming a litterbug and, in the process, venting to an online community that praises our advocacy can feel really good. But does it make a quantifiable difference? Studies show that people are less likely to litter in front of other people, but does that fear of disapproval carry over to the internet?
“These types of posts can be viewed as an attempt to punish behavior,” Berg said. “The interesting thing about punishment is that it doesn’t strengthen good behavior. People who tend to litter — people who get something out of it — will simply work harder to avoid the punisher. They’ll look around more closely to make sure no one is videotaping, rather than change their ways.”
In other words, the threat of online shaming will curtail some would-be litterbugs, but on its own, it’s not a long-term solution. For that, we have to make people care about the environment, and feel a moral obligation to it.
“Research indicates it would also be effective to post pictures of clean, pristine landscapes,” said Joshua Rottman, Ph.D, director of the Developing Moral Values Lab at Franklin and Marshall College. “People are very susceptible to conforming to local norms — especially when this norm is brought to their attention.”
Nonprofit New Jersey Clean Communities is ramping up what Rottman calls a more “purity based” strategy. The group has gone into overdrive developing an Instagram campaign, spearheaded by students, that will showcase the beauty of the planet, and of protecting it.
Unexpected side effect
Whatever platform the online conversation is occurring on, the common denominator is that it nearly always devolves into a fight between tourists and locals about who is responsible.
Derogatory terms for shore visitors — like “shoobie” and “benny” — are commonplace.Miller, from the Cool Cape May Facebook page, says he has removed several posts altogether because the fighting has grown so heated. And one commenter on Facebook page Jersey Shore Hurricane News wrote that he has given up his dream of retiring along this coast after reading nasty accusations directed toward visitors over trash.
According to experts, there may be something to this territorialism.
“Any kind of deviant behavior is much more likely to happen in an area that isn’t your home, in an area you have no relationship to,” said Berg. “It’s the reason students are more likely to misbehave for a substitute teacher. The contingency between your behavior and the effect on your environment is less obvious. If you want to reduce litter, it will help to remind visitors that they might want to come back this place next summer.”
The New Jersey Department of Tourism declined to take a stance on litterbug shaming for this story.
But no matter who is doing the trashing, one thing is clear according to Pattantyus: “It’s everybody’s problem.”