As I was driving my mother south toward the Pennsylvania border last week to visit her brother, she did something that stunned me. She reached down and grabbed a handful of trash - a paper cup, used tissues, and some candy wrappers - that had gathered at her feet. Then she rolled down the passenger window and flung it out.
A kaleidoscope of garbage appeared in the rear-view mirror.
I shot her one of those "I can't believe you did that" looks because my near 80- year-old mother has always supported efforts to protect the environment and endangered animals.
Doesn't that begin with not littering?
Public service campaigns against littering began in the 1950's, and by the 1970's,
"Don't be a litterbug" had become a moral response to a national disgrace. The "Keep America Beautiful" ad campaign was enormously successful in changing public attitudes about littering. To be seen littering was to be déclassé.
But the campaign drew criticism after it was made public that the iconic "Crying Indian" ad featured an actor who wasn't a Native American. Iron Eyes Cody was actually an Italian actor. The revelation seemed to weaken the campaign.
Concerns about litter today, judging from our roadways and intersections, must seem quaint. Still, the research on littering is interesting. For instance, 51 billion pieces of litter land on US roadways yearly, and annual cleanup costs for litter nationally top $11 billion. People are more likely to throw litter on top of other litter rather than spoil a clean area. And younger people, especially those who drive and consume fast food, are among the country's worst littering offenders.
And according to studies by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources,
a plastic jug takes 1 million years to decompose. An aluminum can will take 200 years, and a paper bag will take a month.
My mother didn't see the irony of her NatureValley granola bar wrapper decomposing in a valley for the next 45 years, but she took the teasing well.
"You busted me," she said.