Picture a child learning to read. They start with the letters of the alphabet, then sounds, then finally short words and phrases. This turns into longer sentences, paragraphs, stories. As they get older, the literature gets more complex and the critical thinking skills required of them increases.
Or consider maths. A child begins with being taught numbers before progressing to the addition and subtraction of small figures. Bigger numbers and more complicated equations come next—multiplication, division, fractions—and they all get built upon bit by bit until a student ends up studying algebra, calculus, or physics.
All going well, a child’s education is developed further each step of their journey through school. Their classes are not halted once they reach the age of 11. They are not taught the alphabet then expected to read David Copperfield. They don’t go from 1 + 1 to solving for x.
So why do we expect the anti-litter lessons taught in primary school to be enough to see a child through to secondary school, sixth form, and beyond? Because this is what I see on social media and hear in the conversations I have with people:*
“I spoke at a primary school about the importance of not littering.”
“Litter-picking equipment has been purchased for our primary schools.”
“Don’t the year 2s look cute with their litter pickers and hi-vis jackets?”
When I was an Eco-Schools assessor, I only visited primary schools, and, in one memorable instance, a nursery. I freely admit this could be a biased sample, and perhaps there are students at secondary school and beyond who are being drip fed the message about proper rubbish disposal, in addition to wider environmental issues.
Because without that continuity—the constant and consistent message about proper behaviour—how do we expect adolescents to learn in the same way they pick up reading and maths, history and science? How does going on a litter pick at the age of 8 later help a 15-year-old deal with peer pressure and the desire to fit in? Why do we expect teenagers and young adults to carry out the correct behaviour by osmosis, when the culture that surrounds them is one in which litter is everywhere? What conclusion can we expect them to draw, other than if litter is everywhere, then everyone must litter?
At the same time, we have to recognise that research indicates that one of the groups most likely to litter—males aged 16-25—are unlikely to listen to authorities. This means a didactic approach is not going to cut it. Why should they listen to people who don’t understand their motivations and thought process?
But this isn’t an impossible challenge to solve. Harnessing the power of peer influencers, roping in role models, developing co-created campaigns, and encouraging in-group policing all have the potential to begin to shift behaviour. Focusing on positive peer pressure—accountability to those whose opinions they care about—could be enough to get the ball rolling.
Something else I hear on a regular basis from people of a certain generation is “I never littered. I was taught to use a bin or put the wrapper in my pocket.” And I suppose I’ve really missed a trick because I never thought to ask this question in return: “Who taught you?”
Was it parents? Somehow, somewhere, sometime, the chain of instruction has been broken. For cultural messages to endure, they have to be intentionally passed on to the next generation.
Was it teachers? Poor teachers. They are constantly asked to do more and more, and it’s not particularly surprising if this particular lesson has fallen by the wayside.
Was it through highly visible national campaigns? I have been in the UK for nearly 20 years, and in that time I cannot recall seeing anything on the scale of Don’t Mess With Texas or even Keep Britain Tidy’s ABBA years.**
Whatever the answer happens to be, anti-litter education is now piecemeal. We also live in a much noisier world than it used to be. A campaign that would be seen by an overwhelming majority of people because it featured on one of four television channels now must compete for visibility with multiple streaming services, social media, and ad blockers.
But regardless of how the lesson was imparted in the past, I can almost guarantee it was not a one-time thing, but rather something that was reinforced through different methods. The idea that you can tell a young person something once or twice and expect the idea to stick—or that it will be adopted as a personal value when the behaviour itself isn’t regularly modelled—would have been just as laughable decades ago as it is now.
Where does this bring us? Ultimately, I would simply love to see clear, consistent, and age-appropriate messaging being delivered to the tiniest tots all the way through to students at university, year in, year out. We can build on this with other layers, but, without this foundation, how can we expect change? Education is a process, not a flash-in-the-pan event.
I always point to the Eco-Schools programme as such a starting point. It is not a silver bullet or panacea to completely solve the problem of providing anti-litter education, but it’s available for all age levels and is something that already exists. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, there’s an opportunity to use it as a platform to multiply the message throughout the school and beyond the front gate.
And after all, isn’t that the point of all education, for it to be implemented in the real world? We learn to read so we can communicate and understand meaning, and study maths so we can split the cheque at a restaurant. Isn’t it time that environmental education receives a similar amount of attention?
I am not saying that any of these statements are negative—far from it! But primary-aged children are the only students I regularly see targeted with anti-litter work, and it feels like a very important part of the equation is missing.