Hi-Visibility, Low Responsibility?

After a year and a half of running Community Clean Ups in Chippenham, we are almost a well-oiled machine consisting of organising—requesting permission for the property, arranging for Council collection of the rubbish, advertising the event—and heavy lifting. This latter includes clearing out the garage on the morning of the Community Clean Up to make sure we have litter pickers, hoops, bags, gloves, permission forms, tables, chairs, gazebo, first aid kit, hot water for tea … you get the picture. This then gets loaded into the car, driven to whatever location we’re cleaning that day, unloaded, and set up. Then packed up again at the end to go back in the car and back in the garage, where everything sits until needed for the next Clean Up.

You know what’s not on that list of things we’re moving from place to place? Hi-vis jackets. I thought about this when shifting things from the garage to car for today’s Clean Up and every other box I checked seemed to contain a bag of unopened hi-vis jackets from the Council. Very early on when collecting rubbish, Jon and I made the decision to forego the hi-vis vests that seem so popular with most litter picking groups, and this is an ethos that has carried over to the larger clean ups.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the areas that we clean as a group are parks in broad daylight: if you are worried about being seen by traffic in a park, then there are larger problems than litter to contend with. Second, and perhaps most important in my mind, is the message that hi-vis sends: it serves as a uniform to set cleaners apart from everyone else. Cleaning up litter becomes that person’s “job”, allowing others to abdicate responsibility. Yet anyone can pick up litter at any time: it’s this that sets a much better example to the community.

Zero Waste Scotland’s report Rapid Evidence Review of Littering Behaviour and Anti-Litter Policies is my anti-litter bible. It makes the point that littered areas attract more litter, and clean areas tend to be littered less often … but areas that are known to be cleaned on a regular basis tend to end up with more litter. At first glance it seems like a paradox, but it makes sense when you think about it just a bit more: why bother to bin something if you know that it will be picked up by someone? For example, look at what happens in places like cinemas, stadiums, and trains: it is expected that someone will clean up the mess so people leave things behind. Hi-vis is one such way that attention is called to litter collection in the outside world—after all, it’s in its very name. Yet such visibility may defeat the goal.

All of this is not to say that hi-vis doesn’t serve a purpose. In high traffic or potentially dangerous areas, hi-vis is absolutely necessary. Or if you’re litter-picking after dark I suppose. Having seen how large groups of children doing litter picks scatter in all directions, I also think there is something to be said with kitting them up in DayGlo colours to make them easier to spot when you need to bring them back. But overall, the messages that we send about litter need to be re-thought, and this is one place we can start.

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