Food for Thought

I have been hibernating for the past few months. A combination of things—short days, long nights, projects for work, the lockdown—has meant that litter has not been at the forefront of my mind this winter. However, a few factors have conspired to bring me blinking into the sunlight and encouraged me to stretch out my fingers to write.

First, the dashboard for the Off the Ground website showed an incredible spike in traffic at the beginning of February: someone, somewhere on Facebook, had shared the blog post “Why People Litter and What We Can Do About It” and suddenly the website hit a new record for daily views. This catapulted the post—and the reasons for littering—back onto my radar.

Second, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through the articles that Pocket recommends through Firefox’s new tab screen. It pulls together subjects from across the internet, running the gamut of interesting randomness: psychology, technological innovations, archaeological discoveries, recipes, interior design, and even movie recommendations. One link that recently caught my eye was Rene Chun’s article “The Banana Trick and Other Acts of Self-Checkout Thievery” in  The Atlantic that highlights how self-scan checkouts have led to greater shoplifting. A few paragraphs in particular jumped out at me:

Perhaps it’s not surprising that some people steal from machines more readily than from human cashiers. “Anyone who pays for more than half of their stuff in self-checkout is a total moron,” reads one of the more militant comments in a Reddit discussion on the subject. “There is NO MORAL ISSUE with stealing from a store that forces you to use self checkout, period. THEY ARE CHARGING YOU TO WORK AT THEIR STORE.”

Barbara Staib, the director of communications of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, believes that self-checkouts tempt people who are already predisposed to shoplifting, by allowing them to rationalize their behavior. “Most shoplifters are in fact otherwise law-abiding citizens. They would chase behind you to return the $20 bill you dropped, because you’re a person and you would miss that $20.” A robot cashier, though, changes the equation: It “gives the false impression of anonymity,” Staib says. “This apparently empowers people to shoplift.”

I found this quite telling, with the key words being “rationalize their behavior”. Because I can almost guarantee that those who litter do the same thing. They don’t necessarily have any moral qualms about their actions because they don’t see it as hurting anyone or anything. The damage it causes is completely abstract or non-existent in their mind.

This is why “litter makes a job for someone” is such a popular, if illogical, reason for littering. Why “I pay my council tax” gets trotted out when people are asked about fines. The Redditor above implies “Why should you pay for your food if you perform work by using a self-checkout machine?” The litterer sees their tax money goes to picking up rubbish, so what’s the harm in littering … conveniently ignoring that the same money could instead go to the NHS, education, leisure facilities, law enforcement, infrastructure repair, and a myriad of other things. Until Britain is willing to adopt a culture of cleanliness, where “my rubbish, my responsibility” is the underlying philosophy rather than the current “someone else’ll do it” mindset, this type of rationalization is likely to continue.

However, there is hope. If you watched the excellent series of Winterwatch at the end of January, you will have heard beachcomber Martin Grey of Orkney say, “There’s no such thing as good litter.” This simple phrase encapsulates so much. Could we raise a new generation with this imprinted into their subconscious? Is this what needs to be put on bus shelters, billboards, and advertising hoardings? Prominently displayed at the point of sale at every supermarket, convenience store, petrol station, and fast-food outlet around the country? Gracing banners at football stadiums? Decorating posters at schools?

I don’t know if it’s the same for bears, dormice, hedgehogs, and other animals that sleep through the winter, but I have found my own recent period of hibernation to be an excellent time to think and recharge. On that note, I will be updating the list of why people litter soon, as there are a few other reasons that I think are worth considering. They touch upon far bigger issues—homelessness, addiction—than I usually deal with in the blog, but I think it’s important to show the full scope of what we’re dealing with when it comes to cleaning up the country. If we want to put an end to litter—and not simply pick it up ad infinitum—we must understand the factors that lead to it in the first place.