I am currently reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, he demonstrates how seemingly insignificant factors can make a huge difference in creating an epidemic (or reversing one). The example I am currently reading about is how New York City was able to turn around its crime epidemic, which peaked in the late 1980's.
At that time, the subway system was a wreck - dirty, disorderly, and in poor shape. Further, drug use was escalating, and felony crimes throughout the city - particularly on the subway - were at an all-time high. Additionally, a practice known as "fare-beating" was prevalent at subway stations. Teams of young men or teenagers would jam turnstiles, then force passengers to give them their subway tokens or money to earn passage through a gate. Because of violence, theft, and fare-beating, the general public lost confidence in the subway system and hundreds of thousands of people stopped using it.
In the mid-1980's proponents of "Broken Window" theory decided to try an experiment to clean up the subway system - and the city. According to Gladwell's writing, Broken Window theory says that "crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread..."
The City of New York tested this theory. For years, subway cars were covered in graffiti. The city decided that graffiti was one of the primary deterrents to people riding on the subway. Graffiti sent a negative message. So, car by car, they began to remove and repaint over the graffiti. When cars were taken out of service, teens would spend hours painting graffiti on these cars late at night. After they had completed their works of art, the city would come with paint cans and rollers and paint over it. The graffiti artists began to realize their efforts were wasted. And, after doing this for six years (until 1990), the city had won the graffiti battle.
They also put resources in place to put a halt to the fare beaters, but they found that cleaning up the subway system was most attributed to putting a stop to the graffiti.
So, what does this have to do with shopping carts and litter in parking lots? Well, it's the same principle. If certain retailers and neighborhoods would put their foot down and demonstrate that cleanliness is of huge importance, it would send a message. A dozen carts standing alone in a parking lot tells shoppers many things. But, putting personnel and resources in place to keep carts either in cart holders, or to be returned easily, would also result in contagious behavior.
If you live in an area with lot of broken windows (literally or figuratively), you have a choice to make. You can move to another area that has nicer windows, or you can help change the attitudes and behaviors by doing your part to keep your neighborhood clean and safe. Trust me...others will notice, and will likely follow suit!