To answer this question we have to make clear what we mean by “littering”. One definition that makes sense is “making a place or area untidy with rubbish or a large number of objects left lying about.” A definition of “litter” could be this: “Carelessly discarded refuse, such as wastepaper - a disorderly accumulation of objects.” These definitions are not all that helpful.
For example, what is rubbish to one person may not be rubbish to another. If a place was left untidy with stuff that was not rubbish, would that be littering? What is untidy to one person may seem tidy to another. If refuse was discarded in a non-careless way and if the accumulation of objects was not disorderly, would that constitute littering?
What is missing from these definitions is what human beings actually do and the affect it has on others. Here are what I see as examples of littering.
- Emptying you cigarette butts into the street
- Throwing your beer can or soft drink can out the car window when you have finished drinking
- Dropping your empty sweet /crisp packet in the street
- Dumping a pile of rubble or an old bed mattress on the side of the road
- Not picking up your dog’s poo in the park or on the pavement.
- Members of Parliament just leaving their order papers on the benches when they leave the House.
As we know, in some countries littering is illegal and may even be a criminal offence. Most times a criminal act is an unethical act and that makes littering unethical. But leaving criminality aside for the moment, what really makes littering unethical?
For me, it is the fact that those who litter do not care about their fellow human beings. Throwing your rubbish anywhere makes the place look bad and this in turn may lead to other bad behaviours. Cigarette butts thrown in the street will cause ash in the air that others have to breath. Dog poo will stick to shoes, cause discomfort and if not caught in time mess up the inside of a car or the carpets in a house. Litter may end up in rivers and the sea and contribute to further ecological damage affecting future generations. In the end, the monetary cost of littering is borne by the residents of an area.
Littering is not just discarding rubbish which makes a place look bad, which may be dangerous (poisonous) and which costs money to clean up. It is an utter disregard for the well being of our fellow humans. That is what makes littering unethical.