Creating a Cleaner Culture

Culture can be described as the unwritten rules that a group of people follow. In the UK, for example, you just don’t jump to the front of a queue. Ever.

With the Rugby World Cup on, the Off the Ground Twitter feed has been full of people amazed by the sight of Japanese supporters cleaning the stadium after games. The same thing happened last year during the FIFA World Cup, reflecting a culture of cleanliness and taking responsibility for one’s rubbish. It happens automatically. There is no questioning “What do I do with this?” No looking for a bin. No thought at all that it is someone else’s job to dispose of it. It’s done without thinking and without complaint.

This is something that is ingrained from a young age: parents teach their children, schools require their pupils to help in cleaning classrooms, and society enforces it through negative consequences for those who transgress. Meanwhile, if you look around the UK, there is no clear message about how to dispose of rubbish.

  • Litter can be found through most communities, in the countryside, and along roadways and waterways. Without a culture of cleanliness, the implicit message is that this is okay (“if there is litter everywhere, then everyone must litter”).

  • Overflowing bins likewise send the tacit message that local authorities can’t be bothered with rubbish. If they can’t be bothered, why should people be bothered to find another bin?

  • “Use a bin or take it home”: The second part of this message is important but has been neglected in many campaigns.* If a bin can’t be readily seen or found, it’s far easier to just leave rubbish behind. After all, people tend to choose the path of least resistance: littering is the easy option and, at present, not littering takes more effort and thought.

  • Campaigns are sporadic. There is no unifying message that establishes how littering is viewed in the UK. Instead, each authority does their own thing, often utilising traditional methods that fail to reach the intended audience.

  • In cinemas, theatres, stadiums, buses, trains, schools, and office buildings, there is an expectation that someone will pick up the rubbish left behind. Is it any wonder that this belief bleeds into day-to-day life, especially when volunteer litter picks reinforce the message that someone else will clean up in the community?

  • Even when it comes to being angry about litter, many people I’ve spoken with are more upset that the council fails to pick it up, rather than focusing on the people who caused the mess in the first place. Unless we can present a united front—littering is not acceptable in the UK—it is likely to continue.

  • There are no real consequences for littering. While there is technically a £150 on-the-spot fine, until it is handed out in a sensible fashion (i.e. not for orange peels and not with incentives attached for those giving the fines) and highly publicised, it is unlikely to make any difference.

The human brain likes certainty. Uncertainty can make us fearful or anxious. For example, this is one of the reasons that social situations can be so fraught: “Do I go for a handshake? Or a hug? One kiss on the cheek? Or two?” In many situations, people exhibit what is called modelling behaviour: they look to see how others are acting and follow suit. This almost always guarantees that they will do the right thing or, at the very least, not stand out in a negative way. Is it any wonder that UK music festivals end up completely trashed or parks get covered in rubbish on a sunny bank holiday weekend? If people are uncertain what to do with their rubbish, all it takes is for a few people to set a new norm, especially when coupled with the firmly entrenched “it’s someone else’s job” mindset.

You can say, “People know they shouldn’t litter!” And that’s probably true. Just like I know I shouldn’t have an extra serving of pudding if I am trying to lose weight, or that I shouldn’t play one more game on my phone at bedtime when I want to get up early the next day. People are very good at lying to themselves because we do it all the time. We make excuses for our behaviour and we justify our actions. In the same way, those who choose to litter tell themselves that it helps keep someone in employment or that it’s okay to leave rubbish in this particular situation because hey, others have done it too.

So, we have a public receiving mixed and muted messages about how to dispose of their rubbish. As a result, the cultural auto-pilot exhibited by the Japanese fails to engage when it comes to UK residents. A concerted and deliberate effort is needed to breathe certainty into what is, at present, a very uncertain behaviour.

Why not start in the places where people expect others to clean up after them? Cinemas, theatres, stadiums, buses, and trains would be the perfect places to launch a campaign using all of the research known to lead to positive behaviour change. Trust me, there’s a lot out there in the academic literature and in the field of social marketing.

Can you imagine the potential for behaviour change if short, well-written advertisements about properly disposing of rubbish were played before every screening of every film over the course of a year (or more)? How many eyeballs would that reach? Action, noir, rom-com, thriller … there is enormous scope for creativity and crafting a message that will land with the widest possible audience. Throw in simple announcements on trains (“Please take all of your belongings and rubbish on the way out”) and include students on a school-wide cleaning rota, and it may be enough to get the ball rolling.

Admittedly, changing an established culture is not easy. After all, the culture has to want to change—are we at the point where enough people are willing to say “Enough!”? Enough time and energy have been spent running litter pick after litter pick with no end in sight. Enough money has been spent cleaning up after a problem we cause ourselves, money that could be better spent on other things. Enough wildlife has been killed or injured through our neglect.

We ultimately decide what reflects British culture by taking the necessary steps to shape it, and we create the future we want through the choices and actions we take today. Shouldn’t we do what we can to make sure that littering is as taboo as queue jumping, and that cleanliness is associated with the country as much as fish and chips or a cup of tea? I’ll certainly drink to that!

Keep Britain Tidy has recently launched the Keep It, Bin It campaign; I have not seen any reports about its effectiveness yet, but I do like the “No more rubbish excuses” tagline.

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