What Does USA’s Litter and China’s Pollution Have in Common?



中文. Translated from English by Jolie Wang.

The USA Has Plenty Of Dirty Little Secrets: Litter is One of Them

Twenty years ago, when I was a child in the United States, our roads and land had pollutants of their own. As I would sit in the back of the family station wagon with my lap belt loosely buckled, and my hand hanging out of the window, running through the air currents, I remember noticing highways lined with rubbish. I distinctly remember on more than one occasion seeing men throw beer bottles out of their pick-up trucks. I think I remember this most because I saw it the most.

I lived in the Southeast foothills, where many privately owned properties are vast. Some have long road fronts, while others only have driveway openings. All road fronts were trashed, and a child could easily tell who had the most pride in their property (or the most money to hire lawn workers) by the amount or lack of trash and the length of the grass. Drivers in that day didn’t care about the property of others or the negative affects on the environment. All they saw was their present: keeping a clean car clean and litter free. Or, well, escaping a DUI ticket in the case of the men with the beer bottles.

And who the property belonged to didn’t matter, or really if they were driving their cars or not.   Campers, fishermen, beach sunbathers and leisure-lake-lappers in the United States were just as guilty. The irony is that they would trash their own leisure playgrounds, not giving a thought to the fact that the trash would probably be there the next time they visited. At one point when my family was homeless, we lived in a state park; the campgrounds and the rivers were filthy. My mom constantly reminded us to not pick up trash, and my older siblings would monitor the younger ones. Trash is dangerous, especially if partying teens and young adults of the ‘90s had been around.


The Strongest Solution for Garbage

The United States did have federal and state legislation concerning litter and waste when I was a child, but enforcement was a serious problem. Some states had stronger policies than others, but enforcing the legislation was clearly difficult based on the amount of trash that was just lying around. The “Keep America Beautiful” campaign was started in 1953, but I personally saw a lot of trash lying around in the ‘90s.

I remember a distinct change in our environment in my state, and in my attitude concerning litter, during the litterbug commercial campaign. This commercial was specific to my state, but it essentially went like this:

– A woman gives a short introduction to why littering is bad.

– She encourages everyone to call the litterbug hotline if they see someone littering.

– Next scene: a little girl in a car spots the driver in front of her throwing stuff out of the window. She’s shocked and angry. She calls the litterbug hotline and gives the hotline the car license plate. The little girl then tells viewers, “Don’t be a litterbug.” Thumbs up.


As cheesy as the commercial sounds, the propaganda totally brainwashed me. When I would see litter or others throwing out trash inappropriately, my six/seven/eight year old self was incensed.   I remember even as an adult, the first time I lived among internationals, that I was furious that they would trash their own living quarters and my apartment complex! I seriously wanted to make a cartoon flyer to teach them how littering hurt them and their children. Then I guessed the flyer would end up with the litter. Bad idea.

My husband feels the same conviction; he is only a few years older than me. He was happily brainwashed by Captain Planet. The bad guys were litterbugs in that cartoon series.

Digressing, social pressure is a much greater deterrent to littering than legislation. My generation, at the very least, feels a repugnance to littering. I can’t even do it here in China where it’s not necessarily socially wrong. Littering is morally wrong to me; I can’t bring myself to let my trash pass or allow my children to litter.

Although the government can continue to make stronger restrictions and policies, the people of China have the most responsibility in moving away from smog.

Pollution is a Social Problem NOT ONLY a Government Problem

Now to the main point, pollution is more of a social problem than a legislation problem, in my opinion. Just like litter, cars, factories, fires, fireworks and other causes can anonymously make pollution by anonymous individuals and companies. Pollution cannot be traced to one specific person or people, (I’m suspicious factories in Beijing run at night to avoid public criticism). No one could ever make this type of campaign, since pollution is traceless without an arsenal of powerful satellites.

I frequently hear Chinese people say, “My government needs to do something.” And, that’s true. And, they have been doing something. Thankfully. But, pollution is a responsibility of everyone living and working in China, not just the government’s.

If social pressure of the people was turned upon the makers and users of pollution causers, the government would reach their environmental goals much faster than the projected 2017, 2020, 2025…. whichever year is projected.

But, right now, money or saving money is a stronger driving factor than the health of our own children, our own parents and our own selves.


Chinese People Do Have A Choice

For example, one commonly cited issue is traffic. Car drivers could decide to only purchase gas at vendors who go above and beyond government standards for gas cleanliness. But, the deterrent would be that this gas most definitely would cost more, and that, honestly, how could you trust the gas vendors without government or non-profit agency certification of the gas? In the present, all drivers see is keeping their wallets fat, and asking the government to keep the price of gas very low accomplishes that fat wallet.

Years from now, when pollution becomes more publicly obvious of a lung cancer causing problem, all drivers will morn the loss of children, their parents, and even themselves to cancer. They will wish they had foreseen how much cheap gas really cost them.

I remember my grandmother questioning and finally quitting cigarettes as her body was completely ruined by those cancer sticks. She had part of her foot amputated when I was a teenager, and she suffered from cigarette-related health complications until they caused her death, a month before I got engaged to my husband. Her careless pleasures in cigarettes were well enjoyed in her youth, but don’t doubt our family wishes she were alive to see her grandchildren grow and have children of their own. Did anyone make her smoke? No. Did anyone make a specific Chinese person drive a car or buy cheap, unclean gas? No.


Energy is another issue. Coal-driven energy is cheap. Factories use coal for energy to make their goods, send it overseas on a ship using dirty fuel, and then arriving in my lovely country, where people buy those goods at low prices. Then my president backstabs China and says children shouldn’t be raised here. Journalists love this story and begin popping out articles about how China has the filthiest air in the world. They link and share these digital articles using their iPhones while wearing Nikes or carrying Coach. Please ask for my country to return your goods, China. They’ll say sorry, soon.

Dirty, hypocritical picture, isn’t it?

Foreign and Chinese owned factories should be held responsible for the pollution they emit. Factory workers should express this is important to them to take pride in their work. Consumers worldwide should demand to know how much pollution is emitted by the factory manufacturing their goods. And creatives in China should invest in wonderful propaganda meant to educate and to blame the public for their misconduct in being so silent toward the ones who are making the pollution. Do you understand how the government is not the main maker of pollution?

My school didn’t have to purchase air filters for our classrooms, but they did almost a year ago, well before these recent Beijing government red alerts. Now, my school is introducing self-imposed pollution policies, weather-stripping doors, and requiring that general assistants roam the building once an hour to collect AQI data inside. Although I respect my principal, I know that this wasn’t all his idea. A great deal of pressure for having a clean working environment came from the concern of teachers. Humbly, he has said in several meetings that he needs all teachers’ ideas to make our school safe and healthy.

Social pressure was much more important than government pressure. In the case of my school, there was no government pressure to clean up the inside. The driving factor has all been social pressure, and the benefit has now been that our school can market to prospective parents that our school has clean air, but no other school in our district can boast the same.


How Will You Pay For the Cost of Pollution?

I don’t know how much more breaking away from pollution will cost China, but it will cost. The question is: what do the people want to pay with?

The awkwardness of telling your boss you don’t like the factory’s emissions or cardiovascular disease and lung cancer?

The extra cost of clean fuel to get to your job across the city or excruciating pain that comes from tumors and also from chemo?

The pro-bono time you could spend making awesome environmental awareness videos for children or the shame of a cancer-ridden body that needs a helper at every hour of the day in the terminal stages of cancer?

The time it takes to tell your government you support their efforts to curb pollution, even when it costs the people extra money, or watching your children suffer these pains?

Money or the inability to even have children in the first place?


The money saved in fast growth will be of little use to the people of China when everyone is dying a short-lived life. And as the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I beg of you to invest your money now in your health for the future. Raise your voice now about how this is a social problem, and show support to your government when they make changes that cost even you some of your renminbi.

Photos thanks to LWYang and John Seb Barber.

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