A Dismal Equation

The best-known equation is probably Einstein’s theory of relativity: E = mc2

It’s simple, easy to remember, and such a part of popular culture that it’s almost guaranteed to feature somewhere on a blackboard in television shows or movies, even if the vast majority of us can’t remember what the variables stand for or why it’s so important.

Another popular equation is Pythagoras’ theorem for determining the unknown length of a triangle. Indeed, it’s one of the few that has stayed in my head after my high school mathematics class: a2 + b2 = c2

However, the equation that I’ve found myself thinking about recently is not so elegant. Instead, it’s downright dismal:

Good weather + People = Littered parks, beaches, and beauty spots

Chippenham, and I’m assuming most of the UK, basked in several days of sun last week. Coming after a very wet and grey winter of lockdown, it’s no surprise that people wanted to get out and enjoy the blue skies and warmer temperatures. Yet I can almost guarantee that afterwards litter levels in public spaces were nearing their peak. Whether it’s overflowing bins, the “faerie rings” left behind after picnics, or stray cans and bottles, rubbish will accumulate as soon as the sun shows itself.

How do I know this? I don’t need a crystal ball. Last summer, the post-lockdown images of beaches swarmed by visitors and their rubbish were national news. The year before that, photos of Glastonbury and Hyde Park hit the headlines and caused an uproar. And I’m sure a quick Google search can find similar scenes going back through the years.

This isn’t a pandemic-related release of tension. Nothing is shocking or surprising about it. Indeed, it’s as regular and predictable as the tides. And it will continue to happen as long as the UK continues to bury its head in the sand about litter and fails to address the root cause: a culture that expects others to do the cleaning up.

It doesn’t take much to set the implicit social norm in a park. Just a can or two, maybe a sandwich carton, can send the message that rubbish can be left behind. That it’s safe to do so—there are no consequences for it. That it’s normal. And being seen as normal—or at least not standing out from the crowd in a negative way—is one of the driving factors behind human behaviour. When viewed in this way, is it any wonder that people continue to add rubbish to overflowing bins? Or see nothing wrong with leaving the packaging from their lunch behind?

Until the key messages reach the vast majority of the population—there’s no such thing as good litter; rubbish should be taken home or binned; your rubbish, your responsibility—there needs to be a proactive approach to waste management. Factoring in the calendar and weather forecasts to provide additional collections during warm weekends and bank holidays is one way to avoid these foreseeable scenes every spring and summer.

Likewise, getting the right message out at the right time and in the right place is a vital part of litter prevention. Wouldn’t focusing on sunny weekends in public spaces be a good starting point? Whether it’s bespoke banners, posters on bins, or something entirely different, using the warm weather to set a new, positive norm—Britain cleans up—is one step we can make towards subtracting this negative behaviour.