A hideous sight: Baton Rouge’s rampant litter problem

LOVE THAT CHICKEN: Someone thought it was OK to simply dump their finished Popeyes chicken box at the intersection of Perkins Road and Essen Lane. (Staff photo)

Empty beer cans protrude from the overgrown grass along Interstate 10. Abandoned tires and an ice chest flung from the bed of a pickup truck adorn the median. A box of Popeyes fried chicken lays on the corner of Essen Lane and Perkins Road. Broken glass and debris litter intersections, while trails of trash, and the occasional mattress, line roadways.

If these sights sound familiar, you probably live in Baton Rouge. Or anywhere in the Bayou State for that matter. Sure, all places struggle with it, but here litter has become something of a Louisiana landmark. The minute motorists cross the state line there’s a noticeable change in landscape upkeep—or lack thereof—as the trash greets travelers on their way in.

Bienvenue én Louisiane.

If looks do in fact matter, what does this rampant litter problem say about the state and its flagship city? The prevailing response might be that it reflects a careless disregard on behalf of the people who live here. But those leading the anti-litter fight note the problem runs deeper and speaks to the innate culture of Louisiana.

Research suggests litter has more to do with the place than the people, says Wesley Schultz, a psychology professor at California State University and Keep America Beautiful board member who studies litter. People are more likely to litter in dirty areas lacking trash disposals and less likely to litter in a clean space with nearby garbage cans.

“Some say people just don’t care, but that’s not what we find at all,” Schultz says. “Our estimates are about 15 percent of litter behavior is due to the person, which leaves 85 percent due to the context. Cities that are clean have made an investment in beautification and infrastructure that make disposal easy.”

Greetings from Blight Rouge stories:

A hideous sight: litter

Signs of the times: visual pollution

The plight of tackling blighted properties

So Baton Rouge need only clean itself up to nip this problem in the bud, right? Local leaders wish it were that simple. Louisiana’s problem, according to those who know it best, is that its very nature seems to lend itself to litter, and eliminating it will require a wholesale reform of not just the landscape, but also attitudes, enforcement and culture.

“We have this kind of lazy, laid-back attitude,” says Susan Russell, executive director of Keep Louisiana Beautiful, speaking to the state’s litter battle against its own self.

For evidence, look no further than the interstates and major roadways that run through the Capital City, where traffic and trash pile up daily. Motorists take no issue with tossing litter from their vehicles, like some sort of parade passing through daily at rush hour.

“It’s this mentality of our culture, like Mardi Gras—throw me something mister,” says Gwen Emick, executive director of Keep Baton Rouge Beautiful.

The issue is so ingrained it may be easy for Louisianans to turn a blind eye to litter, which only stands to make matters worse. Soon enough, they also become blind to the very real consequences, not only directly to the environment and quality of life, but also the indirect effects on economic viability.

“When a community suffers from neglect and litter, it’s a direct reflection of the people who live there and of the leadership,” Russell says. “If you’re a business looking to relocate, do you want to bring employees to a community where leadership looks like they don’t give a damn?”

UP TRASH CREEK: Ward Creek, which runs behind Siegen Lane Marketplace, is clogged with discarded shopping carts, old tires and trash. (Photo by Collin Richie)

‘IT’S A FRUSTRATING THING’

As the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. Baton Rouge has a surprising number of organizations fighting litter. The mayor’s office has made beautification a priority and is spearheading a pilot program to clean high-traffic corridors, in partnership with Keep Baton Rouge Beautiful, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, city-parish, and Department of Transportation and Development.

In addition, the Department of Public Works is tasked with everyday maintenance of the appearance of Baton Rouge, including litter, which has turned out to be a job within itself, so DPW created a Litter Response Team that mainly tackles big messes, like garbage spills.

“We have such a litter problem in the parish we needed additional resources,” says DPW Maintenance Director Kyle Huffstickler. “It’s unbelievable.”

In an effort to add more boots on the ground, the mayor’s office plans to align homelessness prevention and beautification efforts by contracting with a nonprofit called upLIFTD to provide jobs for the homeless, who will in turn help with litter cleanup services. Groups like BRAC’s quality of place committee and Keep Baton Rouge Beautiful have cleanup initiatives as well.

Although the anti-litter troops are growing, abatement remains an uphill battle for Baton Rouge, as the enemy is a persistent one. Huffstickler, who leads the charge for DPW, admits it can sometimes be a futile endeavor.

“We’re out there picking litter up, but it doesn’t appear we are because within a day, it’s back,” he laments. “It’s a frustrating thing.”

Does that mean Schultz’s research, which says clean areas beget less litter, doesn’t hold up in Baton Rouge? Not necessarily. Picking up litter alone does not make an area clean or attractive, says Michelle Meyer, an LSU environmental sociology professor. A more comprehensive makeover is in order if a city really wants to change its ways. That includes more trash disposals, which Meyer has been surprised to find very few of in Louisiana, compared to other states she’s lived in.

“If we want people to do the right thing, they have to be in the context to do right thing,” Meyer says.

SPOILED SCENE: Trash clutters the ground off Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge. (Staff photo)

‘A CASE FOR CHANGE’

But positive incentives alone won’t do the trick—there must be consequences. Stronger legal enforcement has to be a priority on every level, from police to district attorneys to judges, says Russell, of Keep Louisiana Beautiful. Both the state and city- parish have ordinances against littering but could do a better job of enforcing them, even if catching perpetrators may be difficult.

“We’ll never pick-up our way out of the problem,” Russell says. “There’s a standard of what we as a community will accept. We have to draw a line and say this is not acceptable, and take that to our elected officials.”

The challenge with all of this, however, is limited resources in a cash-strapped city and state. This is where the business community can step in—and has. BRAC’s quality of place initiative is not only focused on cleaning up the city but maintaining it, says BRAC Policy and Research Director Logan Anderson. The committee has received prominent support so far from past chairmen Lee Jenkins, of Turner Industries, and Tim Johnson, of TJC Group, and now the current chair, Baton Rouge General CEO Edgardo Tenreiro.

The goal of the committee is a more holistic one, aimed at changing how the city is designed and will grow, Tenreiro says. That involves moving away from the urban sprawl and vehicle-dependence that defines Baton Rouge and essentially disconnects the community. Because Baton Rouge is so spread out, no one is taking ownership of the city at its core, which has led to many of the problems we see today, including litter.

“Litter is simply a result of a community not being socially connected to one another,” Tenreiro says. “It’s obviously a cultural issue. The city doesn’t belong to anyone. And it’s not just downtown or one area. We have a litter problem in parking lot of my hospital.”

Unless the city makes profound changes, he says, Baton Rouge will remain in a never-ending cycle of increasingly worse outcomes in terms of litter, appearance, health care, economic development and so on.

“We’re bringing a broad group of leaders together to design what we need to look like 40 years from now,” Tenreiro says. “We need to create a case for change.”

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