Putting Litter First: May

The first month of Putting Litter First asked you to think about who you know: who could you speak to about litter and implementing potential solutions?

This networking is at the heart of Putting Litter First. Using our existing relationships to find people who are likely to say “yes”—and then actually help you to take the necessary steps to make the idea a reality—means we’re no longer pushing against a locked door. Suddenly, it’s thrown open for us and we can accomplish things!

At the very least, finding those who can tell you about the potential obstacles and then work with you to overcome them makes it that little bit easier.

I have dozens of examples of Off the Ground colleagues or myself speaking to people about litter and potential solutions. When it’s someone we don’t know, the results invariably follow one of these trajectories:

1) “Yes, thank you, great idea.” But any attempts to follow up are met with silence.

2) “No, sorry, we can’t do that.” When queried as to why, it’s almost guaranteed that the answer will fall into one of these categories:

A.  It’s too expensive.
B.  It requires too much manpower.
C.  It would be too different from what’s already done.
D.  The solution would be vandalised.
E.  It just won’t work.
F.  All of the above.

Regardless, the result is the same: nothing actually changes. No solutions are tried, and no short, medium, and long-term plan is adopted. Yet, as I highlighted last month, it’s necessary for us to layer multiple solutions if we actually want to try and stop litter in its tracks:

One of those long-term actions is education, and that’s what I’m focusing on this month since it’s always cited as one of the things necessary to change behaviour.

First, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, hire in people to speak at schools, or even visit schools / scout groups / church groups ourselves.

Instead, we need to notify teachers, parents, and local government councillors and officials that the Eco-Schools programme exists. My chats with various people over the past year indicate that it’s not as well-known as it should be, and, as a volunteer Eco-Schools assessor myself, I think this needs to change!

What is Eco-Schools?

Eco-Schools is the largest environmental educational programme in the world, with over 19 million students across 68 countries. It’s available at all levels, from nursery up to college. Students drive the agenda through the Eco-Committee, and the programme links into the curriculum of whatever country it’s in. In England, it’s overseen by Keep Britain Tidy.

However, this doesn’t mean it just focuses on litter and waste! Instead, students can pick from ten different topic areas: Biodiversity, Energy, Global Citizenship, Healthy Living Litter, Marine, School Grounds, Transport, Waste, and Water.

The school’s Eco-Committee will choose which three areas the school wants to focus on and how they want to achieve their aims. The complexity of this will vary depending on the age of the students. The school proceeds through the Bronze and Silver status before going for their Green Flag – it’s only at this point that there is a cost for the programme.

Why do I like the Eco-schools programme?

Well, for pretty much all of the reasons I’ve outlined above. It’s embedded into the school and works with the existing curriculum, so no need for multiple wheels. It’s the students who are driving the agenda, so it provides a sense of ownership. It allows for long-term environmental education, not simply a one-off campaign or a talk that might go in one ear and out the other. It’s designed for all ages: many educational programmes seem to focus on primary-school children without any follow-up as they get older, yet it’s the constant and consistent environmental messaging that will lead to positive change.

As an assessor, I always leave the school I’ve evaluated with an incredible feeling of enthusiasm and optimism. Seeing the amazing work done by the students and their teachers can cut through even my extreme cynicism! However, the last thing I want to do is make an even bigger workload for teachers, who are already juggling a lot. This is where it would be great if parents can get involved in some way to provide support.

All that being said, I think there are several things that are needed to ensure that Eco-Schools can achieve maximum impact.

First is ensuring that its activities are amplified throughout the school and to the families of students. It is absolutely vital to use it as an opportunity to make sure that an anti-litter and pro-environmental message reaches a wider audience.

Second, I would love to see an Eco-Schools network where teachers and parents are able to share ideas and activities: what works, what doesn’t, what opportunities are out there? This will make it easier for everyone in the long run.

Finally, can schools in the same area link up? This is related to the point above: learning from each other and sharing ideas is a great way to cut the workload. It also starts to normalise the desired behaviour: not littering and carrying out other positive environmental actions. Connecting to larger community projects—for example, pollinator-friendly gardens, swishing parties, or repair cafes—helps the students see what they’re learning in action.

What are the obstacles to embedding the Eco-Schools programme at a school?

Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t have children. I’m not a teacher. My tweet to #edutwitter about potential concerns went unanswered. However, I suspect that a large part of the problem is simply not knowing about it. The other issue is what I hinted at just a moment ago: teachers had a lot on their plate before Covid, and since then their workload has only increased. Without buy-in from the headteacher and wider school community, it can be challenging to give a new programme the necessary time and space to develop.

Due to confidentiality, I am unable to get a list of which schools are already part of the programme. However, this seems like low-hanging fruit for parents, teachers, and local councillors: can all schools in an area be encouraged to not only achieve their Green Flag status, but retain it by remaining active in the programme?

But wait, there’s more!

Beyond the Eco-Schools programme, there are a few other things that can potentially be done to inspire students at all levels to not only think about litter but also tackle some of the common myths. I favour the Socratic method: asking questions and encouraging age-appropriate critical thought. In speaking with a friend who is a former teacher, she agreed with me: this would be her preferred method to engage students with the topic.

Something else that has been suggested to me in the past is running an anti-litter poster contest. The problem? It doesn’t provoke critical thinking. It doesn’t target those who are likely to litter. And it doesn’t amplify the message to the wider community.

However, saying all that, I do think there is a way it can be salvaged as a potential way to at least tick that final box: amplifying the message beyond the students themselves. Imagine if all the shops on a High Street—Costa and Greggs, Starbucks and Parsons, Wilko and Boots—were willing to display a different anti-litter poster in their window each month, year after year. This would not only allow others to see the students’ creations (and encourage families to visit when their child’s artwork or a class poster is on display), but potentially begin to change the wider culture by showcasing that littering is not acceptable.

The Swiss cheese graphic above is adapted from virologist Ian M. Mackay’s approach to the coronavirus. I think it’s worth highlighting that many vaccines don’t do their job in one jab: they require a booster shot. When it comes to any anti-litter messaging or education programme, thinking about how we approach things over the long-term—beyond a one-off campaign or a single activity—is necessary if we want to successful stop litter from happening in the first place.

Did you miss April’s litterinar? Catch it here! Would you like to get involved? Let me know.

Are you in Chippenham and do you want to talk rubbish? We’re looking at having a virtual meeting in the second half of May; please contact me if you’re interested in coming along.

And keep up with previous Putting Litter First posts:

ABOUT PUTTING LITTER FIRST:

The year-long series Putting Litter First (so we can see the end of it!) is about trying to find a middle ground when it comes stopping litter in our communities. Often, it seems like there’s a false choice presented: those who are working to stop litter can either run a litter pick or they can lobby government for higher fines or for programmes like the Deposit Return Scheme.

The problem with this dichotomy is that most of us are already doing the first bit. We’ve been picking up litter from Chippenham for six years without a noticeable decrease in the amount of rubbish found. On the other hand, waiting for the government to get its act together with higher fines, sensible enforcement, and a proper Deposit Return Scheme feels like an exercise in futility. We can (and we should) campaign for these changes, but, at the same time, we must recognise that the outcome is outside of our control.

Instead, I think there are things that can be done at the community level if enough people are willing to step forward to help make it happen. A big part of this involves making sure that the right people are aware of what tools are available and not re-inventing the wheel. Interested in learning more? Sign up to have the latest Putting Litter First blog post delivered to you on the first of every month.