The next time you flick a cigarette butt out of your car window or casually toss a soda can from your minivan, take heed: Someone might be watching you. And they might report you to 52-CLEAN.
This litter hotline, operated by the Memphis City Beautiful Commission, works like so: If you see a motorist littering from his or her vehicle, call 52-CLEAN and anonymously report the offender's license plate number and, if possible, the date, time, location, type of litter, and make and model of the car.
From there, 52-CLEAN staffers work with the Shelby County Clerk's office to figure out the car owner's name and address. Then they mail him or her a "litter alert letter" that states, "Oops! Litter was seen coming from your vehicle." The letter includes a bit of old-fashioned, polite shaming, along with a warning about the legal consequences of littering and a brochure on what litter does to the community.
Memphis City Beautiful also encloses a small trash bag for the repentant litterbug to put in his or her car.
"It's meant to encourage people to think twice before littering from their vehicles," said Eldra White, executive director for the Memphis City Beautiful Commission. "It's just a friendly reminder that they've been seen and they shouldn't do it."
The hotline has actually been around since the 1980s, but a limited advertising budget has hampered publicity. Still, White said they receive 300 to 500 calls a year, many from the same handful of unofficial litter patrollers.
"We do have faithful users, a faithful few whose voices we recognize," White said. "But we still have people out there who don't care or don't think, and that's why we have a litter problem. Just the other day I saw a guy on a motorcycle pull a can out of his bag, drink, and then toss it on the side of the interstate. It's a people problem, so it's a problem that people can stop."
Litter violations may also be reported online at memphiscitybeautiful.org. White said the license plate number is the most important piece of information you can provide, but noting the type of litter is also important, as there is a special brochure for cigarette litter. Cigarette butts can have a large-scale negative impact on waterways and wildlife, White said.