Fear of contamination?

This is something I’ve been thinking about more and more with regards to litter. Has our obsession with cleanliness—hand sanitizers, antimicrobial gels, antibacterial soaps—played a role in both causing the litter epidemic and preventing people from taking steps to address it?

The idea of putting rubbish in your pocket and taking it home, once taught to generations of children, is long gone. Instead, I can imagine that a subconscious distaste for mess is now more pervasive: a crisp packet may send crumbs tumbling through a bag, or the last few drops of a drink may spill. Much easier and neater to get rid of it immediately … but who wants to put their hand into a bin opening, especially one that hasn’t been cleaned in years, if ever? Or which may be overflowing with bags of dog poo? Or perhaps there is no bin within sight. Regardless, the result is the same: what was once packaging is now litter … and potentially a new habit of discarding waste is born.

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Of course, it is now someone else’s responsibility to clean up, and in a recent BBC article entitled “Why don’t we just pick up litter?”, one of the reasons given by some people for not handling rubbish was “fear a dog may have urinated on the litter”. As someone who has picked up quite a bit of litter in my time, usually without gloves, I have to admit that this fear had never gone through my head. Indeed, most litter is actually quite clean, takeaways containers being one of the only exceptions that spring to mind.

I know this may seem a stretch to explain the tonnes of litter found throughout the country, but a book I read recently, Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success, highlighted that people tend to fail to take the complexity of the world into account. I think littering is a good example of this. I tend to joke that it’s very simple to solve the problem of littering: people use a bin and dispose of their rubbish properly. Job done! But a simple glance around any street in Chippenham will show that we have a long way to go to actually achieve this “simple” world.

Instead, it is necessary to figure out why people litter in the first place and work to address those issues. Is cleanliness genuinely a potential reason? Then perhaps we should spend a bit of effort and expense on cleaning up bins, or redesigning them (Bigbelly has produced one with a foot pedal specifically due to hygiene concerns – no hands necessary).

Recognising that each “littering event” may have a different cause, and that each person who litters may have a different motivation, may bring us one step closer to finding a potential solution.

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