An Open Letter to Stop Litter

[ I went on holiday earlier this month, visiting my hometown for the first time in four years. On my very first day away, I received a request to provide recommendations to Chippenham Town Council for funding an anti-litter campaign. Given that the meeting was being held in a few days and I wouldn’t be able to pull my thoughts together quickly to generate a plan or research the necessary costs, I advised I would send along ideas when I returned. 

I did so last week and wanted to share what I wrote here in case anyone else could learn from it or see how it could be implemented in their own community. ]

Hi,

I know this is too late for the meeting you were discussing at the beginning of the month, but if Chippenham Town Council is serious about trying to stop litter and encourage proper rubbish disposal, then a multi-strand approach is needed to address various facets of the problem and bring about genuine impact.

These are the practical steps I believe need to be taken in order to stop preaching to the choir (i.e. targeting people who are unlikely to litter anyway) and change the current culture.

SENSIBLE ENFORCEMENT:

When Off the Ground started in 2015, we checked how many on-the-spot litter fines had been issued in the area. The answer was zero. 

At present, there still does not appear to be any consequences for littering, whether through social disapproval or fines. This is something that needs to be addressed in order to bring about change because, unfortunately, some people do not change their behaviour unless the consequence has a direct impact on them.

However, enforcement should be sensible. There should not be incentives for the number of OTS fines issued, and the items being littered have to be clear—packaging, cans, bottles, cigarette butts—and not food products. This has led to negative PR in the past (even though it is still litter!).

Portable CCTV cameras could potentially be used to catch people, or at least remind people that their behaviour is against the law. A sign saying that CCTV is in operation to catch littering may be enough to encourage people to use a bin or take their rubbish home, especially when tackling rubbish thrown from vehicles (e.g. warning posters at red lights).

CAMPAIGNS:

The real work needs to begin at least several months before the enforcement actually starts, with a clear campaign to highlight that fines will be issued. The campaign needs to blanket Chippenham so there is no doubt that the problem is being taken seriously.

This can include letters to all businesses that they should warn their customers and employees that fines will be issued for littering. This is vital for places like fast food restaurants, takeaways, and betting shops (cigarette butts are litter too!). Businesses should also be encouraged to clean up around their premises because litter attracts litter.

In particular, posters on refrigerated units/points-of-sale/doors at any place that sells food-on-the-go (supermarkets, drug stores, fast food outlets, garages, convenience stores, takeaways) are needed to catch customers before the packaging becomes litter. Posters are also needed at cigarette kiosks to make the point that cartons, tobacco pouches, and butts are all litter and should be disposed of properly. This is the last opportunity to remind people of the correct behaviour/consequence for littering and make the message salient to them; we must work with behaviour before we can change it.

With regards to the content of these posters, research shows that using a negative imperative (“Don’t litter”) is far less effective than using a positive request that explains the correct behaviour (“Take your rubbish home or use a bin”). Even more effective is using social pressure (“Most people take their rubbish home or use a bin”, “Brits bin it”).

I would like to see campaign material address some of the reasons that people litter. For example, the mindset that “litter is a good thing because it makes a job for someone” needs to be explicitly tackled (i.e. littering costs funding that could go to so many other things while employing the same people).

A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be effective in this era of personalised advertising, and, on that note, I have a number of bespoke posters from the Love Chippenham campaign that could be used (I plan to get them online soon).

Regardless of the campaign used, it is important to consider how to ensure it is both sustained over a long period of time and maintained on a regular basis to remind people of the correct behaviour. A quick campaign without any follow up makes it difficult to establish new habits.

EDUCATION:

Getting the next generation on board with an anti-litter message is vital, but this should not be done at an assembly. Students are talked at all the time and I have it on good authority that assemblies are when many tend to switch off. Instead, students should be talked to. In particular, I would like to see them encouraged to critically think through the problem of littering with the following questions, in an age-appropriate manner:

  • What problems do students think littering causes?

    The issue of littering is more than simply aesthetic. It can kill wildlife (on land and sea), cause flooding, impact transportation, and even lower property values. Recyclables that are littered instead of being recycled are a waste of resources. Encouraging them to connect cause with effect and think widely about the topic is one way to begin a deeper dive into the subject of waste. 
  • What can be done to stop people from littering?

    There are a few important parts of this question to keep in mind. The first is that diverse answers must be encouraged that focus on how to get people to use a bin or take their rubbish home (i.e. “more litter picks” would not be an appropriate answer).

    Second, if time/money allows, some of the answers should be trialled in real life at the school or in the surrounding area. Not only does this help empower students to realise that they can find potential solutions to real-world problems, it also introduces them to the scientific method because it allows them to collect data about their hypothesis and measure the impact.
  • What will students do to help fight litter?

    Again, there is no right or wrong answer to this, but it would be great to encourage them to think about how to dispose of rubbish while out and about, and to pick up what they safely can.

  • How will students get their family involved?

    Encouraging students to bring home the anti-litter message to parents, siblings, and other family members is necessary to amplify the message beyond the school environment.

BETTER BINFRASTRUCTURE:

The UK is not at the point of turning into Japan, where there are very few bins but a culture of cleanliness. Instead, it is vital to show that the desired social norm is that people use a bin and therefore appropriate bins need to be deployed in appropriate areas. In particular, a greater use of recycling-on-the-go bins or bins for hard-to-recycle products could be beneficial; Hubbub has recently conducted research about this.

Ensuring that bins are emptied and not allowed to overflow is also important. An overflowing bin sends the tacit message that waste management is not a priority and that where people dispose of their rubbish doesn’t matter.  

LESSONS LEARNED:

In your initial email, you mentioned potentially being able to obtain money for a campaign. In many ways, money is a lower priority; what is needed is buy-in from businesses, government, and schools, and a willingness to tackle the problem of litter head on. Over the past five years, we have tried to address some of the points in this letter in Chippenham but have found the buy-in to be very poor and our attempts met with half-hearted or non-existent enthusiasm.

For example, we drafted letters on the request of Wiltshire Council to be sent to local businesses; to the best of our knowledge, these letters never saw the light of day. We tried to run a major Chippenham-wide campaign in 2017 and, despite the enormous time and effort we put into it, there was little willingness from the business community to engage. Until now, the fear of offending customers has trumped the desire to make a positive impact to reduce litter.

As a purely voluntary group without a large organising committee, Off the Ground is not set up to run the type of programme needed to bring about behaviour change and measure the impact of the interventions used. However, I believe that the points I mention here will serve as a guide if Chippenham Town Council or Wiltshire Council would like to focus on looking beyond litter picks to make lasting changes.

If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch and, just to give you a head’s up, I will also be publishing this letter on the Off the Ground blog as a reference to other community groups.

All the best,

 

 

 

[ ADDENDUM: The world has changed considerably since I originally wrote and sent this just a week ago. Maybe the simple way to get people to change their behaviour is to remind them that their individual choices and actions have real-world consequences. In this case, money spent cleaning up after those who litter or fly-tip can be better spent on frontline services, helping small businesses, and preparing for the next crisis. ]
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