Expanding our Influence

I sometimes think it’s worth mentioning that Off the Ground is not my job. I do not get paid to run this website or pick up litter. Nor is it my hobby: I don’t write about rubbish for fun or to relax and unwind.

If anything, it’s closer to an obsession. But if I were to wake up tomorrow and find the UK litter free, I would be a very happy bunny and could certainly find something else to occupy my time and thoughts. 

My actual job is running my business, Academic Smartcuts. Based on my experience in the higher education sector, I help students, researchers, and academics improve their written communication and navigate the funding process. Some of this is hands-on: proofreading and editing journal papers and grant proposals to shape the structure or clarify the language. The other side is teaching: planting seeds to provide guidance or encourage course participants to think about topics in different ways. You know what they say about instructions in angling …

Something I have started teaching this year is an adaption of the circles of control, influence, and concern from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea behind this framework is that everyone sits at the centre of their own circle of control, which refers to the things that we have direct control over to determine the outcome. It’s not much: our thoughts, what we say, and what we do. And that’s it.

The next level up is the circle of influence. This often involves other people: you cannot control them and what they do, and, if you are reliant on someone else for an outcome, you cannot control it … but you can potentially influence it through those things you can control.

The outer circle is the circle of concern. It’s the stuff we have absolutely no control over, so there’s no use worrying about it. This includes the weather, politics, and, quite often, other people’s behaviour.

An example of this in action is let’s say you have a picnic scheduled for the weekend. There is no use worrying about the weather because you can’t do anything about it. What is within your control is to have a Plan B in case it rains! That way you can spring into action if needed, and the outcome of an enjoyable day out is saved.

For the participants on my courses, I try to remind them that, ultimately, they cannot control if they get funded or published. That’s not directly within their power to decide, so they shouldn’t worry about it. Instead, they need to spend their energy on the things they can control, like how well written the paper is: Do their ideas come across clearly? Is the document structured to tell the story of their research in a way that’s easy to understand? Have they actually followed the instructions from the publisher or funding body? It’s this, and more, that can influence the decision makers.

You may have even seen this meme on social media during lockdown that does a great job of summarising the issue for the pandemic period:

I can almost hear those who are reading this speaking to me from across the ether: “That’s all very well and good, Elaine, but isn’t this a blog about litter?”

For far too long we’ve seen litter picking as the only thing within our control in the battle against rubbish, not helped by it being sold as a miracle cure for littering, when it’s no more than a plaster.

But the reality is that we have far greater power than we’ve been led to believe. No, we cannot control the government or the packaging industry or non-profits and NGOs. But our circles can be expanded, and we can potentially do far more to influence on a local, regional, and national level than we are at present.

With regards to control, this includes our thoughts, what we say, and what we do. So, how can we instantly expand our potential influence? Here are few questions that can help point us in a new direction:

Who can we speak to about not littering within our own social groups?

Sometimes it’s easy to assume that those we spend the most time with just get it. That they know not to litter or leave rubbish behind on trains and buses, or at stadiums, theatres, and cinemas. Or maybe that they won’t have any ideas about how to stop people from littering in the first place.

But do we actually discuss litter with the people in our lives, especially the younger generation? Are there children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbours, the children of friends that can be talked to, and, in particular, asked if they have any thoughts about why people litter and what can be done about it? It’s only by listening to multiple perspectives that we will get a little closer to bringing about genuine behaviour change.

Do we have contacts within schools, scouting groups, or religious classes to help educate the next generation about the importance of not littering?

I recognise that not everyone wants to teach, but perhaps you know someone who is already working with young people. Would they be willing to discuss litter with their group, or explore the potential reasons behind it? How can this be amplified to reach their parents?

Do we know people in office buildings or businesses who would be willing to champion the importance of not littering?

Admittedly most offices are closed at the moment, but uncovering an environmental champion within a large business could go a long way towards spreading positive messages to a varied audience. This could be about preventing litter in general or the importance of binning your butts after a smoke break: with a constant and consistent message, the ripples of influence can begin to spread bit by bit.

What about our clubs, sporting groups, and other social activities?

As hinted above, we each play a number of different roles in life: spouse, parent, aunt, uncle, friend, neighbour, employee, employer. For some us, our titles might include book club member, amateur dramatic performer, or Sunday 5-a-side captain. Regardless of what activities we carry out for fun, this is another great way to speak to people, get their views on littering, and spread the message that littering isn’t socially acceptable that little bit further.

How else can we use our contacts and skills?

As you might have already gathered from the points above, I am a big believer in using our existing networks to help propel litter on to the radar of friends, family members, and colleagues: wanting a cleaner country should not be a dirty little secret we keep to ourselves!

Instead, can we run our own focus groups? For example, if you’re the parent of teenagers or work with young adults, could you ask them why they think people their age litter, and how to encourage proper rubbish disposal instead? This isn’t about accusing them (or their friends) of littering, but rather genuinely trying to understand the mindset of people who are different from us. Indeed, presenting it as a problem you want their help with may solicit intriguing opinions: after all, this is an issue even experts have difficulty solving! And it’s worth remembering ourselves that there really is no right or wrong answer to the questions.

Who reading this works for a grocery store, stadium, theatre, cinema, or a train or bus company? Or perhaps has a friend (or a friend of a friend) who does? These are prime areas to send the message that littering is not accepted, whether through posters and announcements, or a change to the standard operative procedure (rubbish goes in a bin, not collected by employees).

Or maybe you have a contact within a local football or sports club? Imagine if this football campaign were rolled out across the country, or if bespoke messages could be broadcast through print and other media at games.

What skills do we have that we can use in the battle against rubbish? I like to write, so I have a blog. Whatever your skills or hobbies, there is bound to be a way that you can help in the battle against litter beyond purely picking it up. Please get in touch if you think you could help in any of the ways listed here, or if you have even more ideas about how you can engage your community.

If you’re not already running a public clean up, could you?

I’m going to assume that most of the people who are reading an anti-litter blog already pick up litter when they see it or regularly go litter picking. But would you be willing and able to run a public clean up?

Public clean ups are not a solution to the problem of littering … but they do expand the anti-litter choir. For many people who regularly attend clean ups, they are the gateway into greater environmental action, such as reducing energy use, cutting back on plastic, or becoming more involved in their community. It also allows even more social networks to be tapped.

Then there’s the big question: what can we influence on a larger scale? How can we unite to employ greater activism for a cause that so many of us care passionately about? How can we make zero litter by 2030 a reality?

One of the good things to come out of lockdown is that I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of people across the country who feel the same way I do. Many of us are waking up to the fact that the problem of litter is not being solved by others and we can no longer wait for someone else to do the right thing. Instead, it looks like it’s going to be up to us to connect and figure out what is within our power to do as a group of concerned individuals.

Can we let our local communities know what’s possible beyond litter picks … and keep pressure on them to adopt different methods?

Two terms that come up again and again on Litter Twitter, and in the discussions around litter in general, are “education” and “enforcement”. Yet in my chats over the past few months, it’s transpired that not everyone in local or regional government is aware of the Eco-Schools programme.

This is the biggest environmental programme in the world, and, in the UK, it is overseen by Keep Britain Tidy. At its core, the Eco-Schools programme ties environmental issues into the existing curriculum, and it encourages students and teachers to think about how their actions impact the environment and what they can do to improve it. I serve as a Green Flag assessor for the programme, and I have been impressed by what I’ve seen schools achieve and how it empowers everyone to incorporate the environment into their thinking.

In 2019, Wayne and Koda submitted a petition to make every school in England an Eco-School. Although I’m not sure about the current status of this activity, can we at least encourage our parish, village, town, and/or county council to check out the programme? How can we make things easier for our local schools and teachers to carry it out? 

It may also be possible to do more to illuminate the second prong of litter reduction: enforcement. One of my chats was with an enforcement officer who opened my eyes to the Community Safety Accreditation Scheme, a way to give additional enforcement power to those already carrying out community safety roles.

In speaking with the enforcement officer, he highlighted other things that could be done as part of standard licensing and planning permission that could help cutdown on litter. I’ll discuss this in a future blog post, but the key thing that I took away was that many of the tools to reduce litter are already in existence: they’re just not being used consistently—or at all—to make a difference. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, so can we do more to join the dots and make these tools more visible?

Do we crowdfund like Led by Donkeys to get an anti-litter message where it needs to be: in front of those who litter?

At the end of June I published a series of blog posts about the importance of getting the right message across to the audience, at the right time, and in the right place. Facebook and other social media platforms allow for hyper-targeted advertising (for example, males aged 17-25 who have expressed interest in Red Bull): has anything been done to get their attention using these methods, potentially through co-created videos and graphics? If not, can we get interventions in front of them that will resonate?

Could a focused letter writing campaign or social media blitz be helpful?

Something I’ve been considering myself is drafting form letters to MPs about litter-related topics. These can then be downloaded and posted or emailed to the sender’s MP. At the moment, there are approximately 3000 people in the UK Litter Picking Groups group on Facebook. If each of those people could encourage 10 people to send an email or a letter, that’s a force of 30,000.

There would be no yelling. No name calling. No list of grievances and complaints. But a solution-focused narrative about particular topics, such as one new letter a month. Admittedly, I suspect any response to such letters would be distraction, deflection, and spin. But, at the very least, it starts the dialogue. 

And beyond MPs, what about leading grocery stores, theatre chains, fast food outlets and takeaways, public transportation? Could they also be targeted to encourage them to do more in the battle against rubbish?

We all want to bring about an end to litter. Everyone has opinions as to what that will look like (my own thoughts are here, here, here, and here), but the key thing to recognise is the how: it must be about stopping litter at its source, those who leave their rubbish behind in the first place.

Like my proofreading and editing, direct, hands-on work through litter picking does have a role to play in the battle against rubbish. It’s often what gets people interested in local environmental issues because they can immediately see the difference they can make, and it’s a gateway to showing people that we have the power to improve our communities.

But, when it comes to making a lasting impact, we must begin to teach others to think differently so that they can change their behaviour and demonstrate a new cultural norm, one of taking responsibility for their own rubbish. Otherwise, we’ll be the ones continuing to fish litter out of our communities, off our coastlines, and from alongside our roadways and waterways for decades to come.

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