No Laughing Matter

There’s a joke in the United States that goes, “If April showers bring May flowers, what do Mayflowers bring?”

Pilgrims.

I was recently thinking about my own version of this quip after seeing so many people on Twitter report getting litter pickers for Christmas. It goes something like this: “What does litter picking bring?”

The answer is not less litter, but rather more litter picking.

I know, I know. I’m cynical.

Don’t get me wrong: at the moment, it is absolutely necessary to clean up litter whenever we come across it. Litter is a threat to wildlife, degrades the environment, and costs a small fortune for the country to collect. I am familiar with the research that litter attracts litter and areas that look cared for are less likely to be littered: it’s best that our streets and communities are looked after as much as possible. And I will always think that litter picks are a great gateway to get people involved in other environmental activities.*

But the thing about a gateway is that it is only the beginning. I would like to see a change in perspective: rather than litter picking being the only thing that is done within communities to tackle rubbish, we instead need to view picking up litter as the absolute minimum that a person or group can do.

In improvisational theatre, there is a classic technique known as “Yes, and …”. You take what your improv partner has given you and build on it.

You wanted to know about my favourite childhood memory? Well, it has to be the time that a kangaroo escaped from a travelling circus and broke into our living room on a Saturday morning. Picture it, we all came downstairs in our dressing gowns to see what the noise was, and it suddenly pulled a kazoo from its pouch and began to play Auld Lang Syne. It would jog my memory more if you could give me a rendition of Auld Lang Syne as played by a kangaroo on a kazoo …

Without the escalation of humour, improv would fall flat. With litter picking, it comes down to the question, “How long do you want to litter pick for?”

A year, five years, a decade or more?

This isn’t meant as a joke. Off the Ground has been running for seven years, and I’d like to think that in that time we’ve managed to clear some of the “litter of ages”, those bits of rubbish that have been lurking under hedges and around bridges for years. We also might have encouraged a few people to go on their own rubbish walks or clear up when they’re out and about.

But the amount of fresh rubbish we find? More or less the same as when we first started. Litter picking is not a solution to stopping the behaviour of those who are more likely to litter in the first place, or changing the environmental context to encourage proper disposal.** If litter pickers and those who littered were Venn diagrams, it’s unlikely there would be any overlap in the circles.

One last question, “Do you want to pick up litter, or do you want to stop litter from occurring in the first place?”

Because, in reality, it is not an either/or proposition. We can do both. But just focusing on the first half of that query means we can practically guarantee we won’t achieve the second.

So, what are the steps you can take to begin moving upstream and add “Yes, and …” to your repertoire?

  • If you are a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or guardian, is your child’s school an active Eco-School? Does it have an engaged Eco-coordinator and Eco-Committee? If not, what is needed to help encourage them to join up and actively work towards earning their green flag? How can the work that’s being done at the school be amplified beyond the school gates to reach the wider community? [Read the Putting Litter First blog post about education.]
  • Do you know anyone who is a councillor or involved in town/county government? Make sure they’re aware of the other tools available to tackle litter beyond participating in a photo op litter pick: from planning and zoning regulations to multiplying enforcement activities, they likely have more options than they think.
  • Willing to head far upstream? Encourage your community to adopt the Refill scheme and a programme like the Shrewsbury cup. This doesn’t directly address litter, but it helps encourage reuse and cutting back on disposable items.

These are just a few suggestions; more can be read throughout the Putting Litter First series, or I’m always happy to talk rubbish: just drop me a line at hello@off-the-ground.org.

Ray Jones of the North Devon Wardens blew my mind when he described how litter pickers in North Devon communicate with litter wardens to let them know where hotspots were. It meant wardens could actually do something, such as run additional patrols in the area and show that it was being looked after. This bridge between those on the ground and those who have the power to do something about litter is sadly missing in many places.

It’s important to remember that littering is often about context rather than simply demographics. For example, someone who wouldn’t litter on the High Street will leave their tent behind at a festival because they see others doing the same.

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