“Lazy.” “Selfish.” “Thoughtless.”

These words are most commonly thrown about when describing people who litter. I’ve mentioned it 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, the 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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