“Lazy.” “Selfish.” “Thoughtless.”

These words are most commonly thrown about when
describing people who litter. I’ve
mentioned before—and I am going to say it again now—these words are not actually
helpful in solving the problem (even if they feel good to mutter when picking
up rubbish!). They ignore the potential
motivations—cleanliness
perhaps, or maybe “wanting
to get on with life
”—and in turn this blinds us to potential
interventions and ways of breaking
the habit
.

They also do a poor job at describing what actually
happens when someone litters. There
seems to be a belief that litterers are a monolithic lot: they have the same
personality traits, same reasons for littering, and they always litter. As a result,
there is also a belief in the converse: there are non-litterers who never litter. Yet research has shown that the boundaries
between these two sets are not just porous, they’re non-existent.

Indeed, Keep Britain Tidy reports that 62% of people drop litter (but
only 28% admit to it
).  Zero Waste
Scotland says that it is better to think of “littering incidents” rather than people who
litter. As a result, litter becomes
about context and situation, rather than a particular personality type or
demographic. Take the person I saw
litter at Chippenham train
station
earlier this year by setting his coffee cup on a bench before
boarding the train. This person was well
dressed, middle aged, with a group of work colleagues. I can almost guarantee that if you asked him
if he ever littered, he would respond in the negative. Instead, we must think more broadly if we are
to have any hope of addressing the littering epidemic.

For example, I have had people say that bins don’t stop
littering because, look, there’s a piece of rubbish right next to a bin. It reminds me of a case from World War II, where the government
wanted to improve the protection on RAF planes, but without adding too much to
the overall weight of the aircraft. So
they recorded the location of bullet holes on damaged planes that came back
from enemy lines. Common sense says this
is where the extra armour should go, right?

However, it took a mathematician named Abraham Wald to
point out that they were basing their evidence on the planes that returned from battle. Those that were lost—and therefore suffered
damage that prevented them from flying back—actually had the evidence needed.   

In the case of litter, it tends to be assumed that where
it ends up is where it started. Yet
there are any number of reasons for rubbish to end up where it’s found. In many cases, it is probably due to direct littering. But it could also be blown there by the wind
(the rubbish we find on our property from local schools is a prime example
of this). Or blown out of a bin by the
wind (I’ve had this happen with topless bins before). Or taken out by an animal such as a bird or
fox (I’ve witnessed a crow
doing just this in John Coles Park).  

All of this is to say that we cannot view
solutions in isolation, nor assume make assumptions about what those solutions
are in the first place. Instead, we must
think more widely—look beyond the apparent evidence in front of us and dig a
little deeper. Otherwise the truly
thoughtless ones are us.

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