Litter: Canary in the (Covid) Coal Mine

I originally wrote this piece back in May 2020 as a pitch to get the attention of national newspapers. It didn’t work, but I think the argument remains just as relevant today as it did then.

When trying to predict how an individual or society will behave in the future, it is common to look at past behaviour for an indication. It is, after all, the reason for “Tell me about a time when …” questions at job interviews! I would argue the recent government coronavirus announcements fail to take into account the potential behaviour of the English public, even though a prime example has been visible for years: litter.

MP Richard Jenrick states that the public can understand the nuances of “stay alert” … meanwhile, it cannot seemingly handle the straightforward instruction of “use a bin”. In particular, these aspects do not bode well for adherence to guidelines over the next several weeks:

  • Certainty: Uncertainty makes people nervous and anxious. This is at play regardless of the level of seriousness, from the current “Do I go to work or not?” line of questioning, to pre-covid greeting confusion (Do I greet this person with a handshake, a hug, or a kiss on the cheek … and if so, one cheek or two?). Looking to see how others respond and following suit is an example of what is known as modelling behaviour, and, with regards to litter, this can be seen at festivals or parks on sunny days. Once a few people leave their rubbish behind, it’s very likely that others will do likewise. How is this modelling likely to translate in the current period? 

  • Clarity: Part of the reason for the uncertainty with regards to litter is due to the fact that how one disposes of their rubbish in the UK is not clear. It is seen as someone’s job to remove rubbish from trains, buses, theatres, cinemas, and stadiums, and this very visible form of public littering occurs on a regular basis with the tacit approval of the companies involved. Without a repeated clear message that all rubbish should be disposed of in a bin or taken home, is it any wonder that “grot spots” develop? The implicit message is that litter should be added to the pile! Without direct messaging from government as to how to behave—and the necessary enforcement—it seems to be inviting greater infection.

  • Common Sense: It would seem to be common sense not to litter: why would anyone want to risk an on-the-spot fine or pollute a beauty spot with the remains of their lunch? And that’s not even looking at the £1 billion price tag associated with cleaning up litter. Does common sense really seem all that common when this amount of money is spent on a problem we cause ourselves?

What level of compliance with the regulations is necessary to reduce the spread of the virus? No one has a crystal ball. But it is difficult to claim that behaviour over the next few weeks cannot be predicted when relevant examples are all around us. After all, the discarding of used PPE is not a new issue, but the manifestation of an existing bad habit. The fast food litter found mere days after restaurants reopen is the continuation of an attitude that never went away.

I originally ended this pitch with asking whether there was any interest in publishing a piece about what Britain’s litter habit can reveal about post-lockdown behaviour. Since that didn’t have great results, I’ll try a different tack …

“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” These words (or those like it) are often attributed to Gandhi, and they have been used to gain support for better treatment of the vulnerable, including animals, prisoners, and refugees. To this I would argue that if you want to understand how a society or a government will behave in a given situation, just look to how it deals with litter.

Do individuals recognise their responsibility to look after the environment … or do they expect someone else to do it for them? Does a government employ joined-up thinking to ensure the entire waste management system is working properly … or does it distribute power to so many people or organisations that the big picture gets lost? Is preventative upstream thinking implemented … or is it all about splashing around downstream?

Unfortunately, I don’t need a crystal ball to foresee the UK’s response. Over seven years of litter picking makes the answer loud and clear.


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