The (Il)legality of Litter

A Warrensburg Project: An analysis on litter and enforcement, part II



One evening at the end of August, I set out to collect trash on the Spirit Trail, a footpath on the south side of Warrensburg that runs along Route DD. In the process, I had four strangers stop and thank me for what I was doing. A man driving by honked and gave me a thumbs-up.

I don’t bring this up to let you know that I’m getting pats on the back. I bring it up because it is illustrative of how important having a litter-free community is to people. They identified that a problem was being addressed, and they were appreciative of it.

For those people who identified this as important, there has to be something to address this issue, something more than a random stranger carrying a trash bag – walking in a more-or-less zigzag pattern, combing through tall grass and negotiating his way through grapevines, rose bushes and poison ivy that seems to just appear out of nowhere, while trying to keep sweat and sunscreen out of his eyes with his forearms like a crazy person, right?

Fortunately for those people, the answer is yes.

Chapter 11 of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Warrensburg is not the most interesting thing you’ll ever read. It does, however, cover every reasonably imaginable scenario regarding garbage and trash.

It is very clear: according to the ordinance, “It shall be unlawful for any person to throw or place upon public or private property any garbage, refuse, rubbish, solid wastes or trash.”

Therefore, since littering is unlawful, and there is currently litter, the logical conclusion is that there are people acting unlawfully.

So, what happens to them?

In 2017, nothing.

According to the public records I obtained from the Warrensburg Municipal Court, zero citations were issued for littering through Aug. 30 of this year.

Part of the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a penalty for violating this ordinance, at least not this year. Odds are that we’ll all get away with it.

It gets even trickier for enforcement of Chapter 11. According to the 2010 Census, Warrensburg had a population of 18,838. The city of Warrensburg employs one person to enforce not only the ordinances contained in Chapter 11 but several chapters worth of ordinances.

One person out of 18,838.

Littering is not the only way trash finds its way into areas of our city that we don’t want trash. Chapter 11 covers those as well.

“Residential refuse containers shall be leak-proof, waterproof, and fitted with a fly-tight lid and shall be properly covered at all times except when depositing refuse therein or removing the contents thereof. …,” according to the ordinance.

Lids on trashcans keep raccoons, dogs, cats and other interested animals from getting into trash and littering on our behalves. It keeps the wind from doing the same. Chapter 11 even goes into detail about what is acceptable if your trash doesn’t quite fit in your trashcan or dumpster.

It isn’t too hard to find a residential refuse container that doesn’t quite live up to the standards required by the law. Beyond that, I feel there is a potential argument over semantics.

If you go to one of the parks in the city, you will find a container that does not have a lid. In fact, you will spend more time searching for one with a lid than one without. The first word in this ordinance is “residential,” so, technically, there isn’t an infraction. But a raccoon is not going to care about the differences between a residential refuse container and a public one.

Diving deeper into Chapter 11, I learned that it is “unlawful for any person to fail to place trash or solid wastes in tied or otherwise secured bags prior to depositing such refuse in trash containers or dumpsters…”

Think about that for a second. It is illegal to throw loose trash into a dumpster. How many times have you violated this particular ordinance? I’ve done it almost daily for the last several years; I park near the dumpster at my apartment complex, and on my way inside, I’ll toss whatever I have from my vehicle into it. After a while it was something I did reflexively.

Therein lies another part of the issue: How can those willing to abide by the law do so without knowing what it is? How do we know we are doing things incorrectly if we are not ever told we are doing things incorrectly?

Warrensburg is not in terrible shape. I don’t want anyone to think that’s what I believe. We have a problem, as does every city; I actually believe that Warrensburg is in better shape than other cities in the area. That’s not a small thing.

This last weekend, a lady on Mitchell Street thanked me from her porch for removing the remnants of a fast-food meal that had ended up in her yard. For her, and for others, it isn’t about how little or how much trash is out there. It’s just that it’s there.

Even if it’s less of a problem here than in other places, it is still a problem.


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