On my soapbox

This past weekend was the #GreatPlasticPickUp, and we at Off the Ground ran our own Community Clean Up in Donkey Field. Certainly a lot of what we find is some type of plastic, from the 55 recyclable bottles to 6 bags of packaging material and other detritus that unfortunately must go straight to landfill.

But we have a problem: cleaning up rubbish is not a solution to littering. It makes an area look better and may dissuade people from dropping waste for a period of time (often far shorter than you would hope). It gives those who did it the feel-good factor. It’s great PR for politicians. And, compared to the programme of behaviour change that’s needed, it’s quite cheap and straightforward to run.

But …

Organising a litter pick is only going to attract people who 1) already care about rubbish in the environment, and 2) are unlikely to litter anyway. It’s a great way for local community groups to attract like-minded people (and, from a personal perspective, meeting all of our fantastic volunteers has been one of the best parts about running Off the Ground) … but actually targeting those who are doing the littering in a constructive way? It’s not happening.

If we want to get serious about the problem of litter in our communities, we must stop preaching to the choir. Which brings me to the first of my ideas for reaching a wider audience: could we have choirs singing about litter in city centres? Hubbub has tried flash mobs; why not a community choir randomly turning up to sing about the importance of binning waste, recycling, the new fines, and generally calling attention to the country’s litter addiction?

Something like this that is recorded and ends up on YouTube is a step in the right direction, and, taking things a step further, why not capitalise on the power of YouTube stars to reach an audience who look up to these 21st-century celebrities? And Coronation Street, EastEnders, and Holly Oaks are often in the spotlight when they tackle hard-hitting story lines such as suicide. This is a great way to reach a lot of people and create demonstrable impact, and these programmes should be applauded for their efforts.

Could the same effect be achieved for other social problems, in particular reducing plastics and waste? I don’t watch any of these shows so I have no idea how to work something into an existing story line, but there are plenty of issues that can be squeezed into a soap:

  • Two characters meet cute while attending a local litter pick and love grows while they complain about litter louts.
  • Someone is fined for littering, complains about it at the pub, and is told off for being a litter lout.
  • A child rescues wildlife caught in a ribbon from a balloon release: the animal dies and a parent has to explain death, or, if that’s too much of a downer, the animal lives, is released back into the wild, and the child runs a campaign to stop balloon releases.
  • Flooding and sewage back up because people have flushed wet wipes and characters are forced out of their homes.
  • Business rates at everyone’s favourite local are going up because the Council is spending money unnecessarily on litter clean up.
  • An improperly extinguished cigarette butt tossed on the ground causes a fire and characters learn about the importance of stubbing and binning their butts.
  • A child gets sick from dogfouling; the message of bagging and binning dog poo is hit home. The cast learn that there are no dog poo faeries.

I admit that none of these ideas are guaranteed to be successful (or good telly). But I can guarantee that as long as we just run clean up after clean up, and refuse to change our approach to addressing those who litter, then we will continue to get the exact same result.

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