For anyone who follows environmental news, this past week has been incredibly busy—and encouraging: BBC’s Springwatch has showcased the people working to fight plastic pollution in Bristol; World Environment Day on 5th June saw many people try to go plastic free; and yesterday was World Oceans Day, which draws attention to the plight of the seas and the animals that live within it.
But you don’t have to do attend a beach clean to have a positive impact on the world. Our communities are drowning in litter: these photos were snapped just outside Chippenham train station, and I can almost guarantee that you will pass at least one, more likely a dozen, pieces of litter during a short walk. Just picking it up to dispose of properly will prevent it from injuring wildlife, entering our waterways, and turning cities and towns across the country into a tip.
Yet constantly cleaning up litter is not the solution to the waste crisis that the UK is experiencing. We must push for a cultural shift in attitude and mindset through encouraging the adoption of reusable products and making littering socially unacceptable. For the former, there are three simple things that can be done now: carry a reusable bag, coffee cup, and water bottle. There are so many different products out there now that you are bound to find one that work for you and your lifestyle.
The latter—stopping litter—is trickier. It requires a well thought through approach to behaviour change and the political will (and associated budget) to implement it. A deposit return scheme is a good first step. Targeting the audience of products that are known to be highly littered is a second. Rather than bland campaigns that aim for a one-size-fits-all approach, we must use the latest in behavioural research to segment the audience and craft messages that will resonate with each one. This is the whole point of social marketing: why isn’t it being used?
Because, and this is perhaps the crux of the matter, there is a significant minority of people who just don’t care. Showing them images of wildlife killed by eating plastic or tangled in a ribbon from a balloon release doesn’t sway them. The mountains of rubbish washing up on a foreign beach means nothing. If it doesn’t affect them personally or if it will cause them a moment’s inconvenience (such as walking to a bin), then it is easy for the existing habits to remain.
We must stop preaching to the choir to reach these people in new ways, whether it’s through shaking them out of complacency by reminding them of littering fines at the point of purchase (and then actually enforcing those fines), or finding the motivational button to push for each demographic. Otherwise, if action isn’t taken and the wave of anti-plastic publicity isn’t harnessed to make lasting changes to the way society deals with waste, then we will be fighting the same battle week after week and year after year—and, at some point, it will be too late.