Parliamentary Litter Inquiry

A few weeks ago, I found myself watching a broadcast of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Litter, held on 6 January 2015. As someone who has recently become an anti-litter evangelist, I found it fascinating to listen to the assembled experts. There were representatives from businesses such as the tobacco industry (cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world) and packaging consortiums, and even the author David Sedaris made an appearance as an anti-litter crusader.

Many of the ideas put forward for mitigating the problem were good; I was especially intrigued by the “Big Belly” bins that compact litter and send a message to their waste management company when nearly full. This allows bins to hold more waste, prevents them from overflowing, and can save money by only having people empty them when needed. Bins for the 21st century are definitely a good start!

However, mitigation is only part of the issue. Actually solving the problem of littering is a different kettle of fish entirely. After all, littering is both a very simple and very complex issue. Simple in that all that is needed is for people to stop dropping trash or throwing it out of their car window. If everyone would put their waste in the bin (or recycling box) where it belongs, the problem would be solved overnight. But it’s complex because human nature, culture, and social norms all have a role to play.

David Sedaris highlighted that the fine for littering in Massachusetts was $10,000; a number like that would certainly make you think twice about dropping a crisp packet, especially if it were enforced. But that is a big problem in the UK: while there are a few councils trying to crack down on littering by giving spot fines, the number is small and in an overwhelming majority of cases there is absolutely no punishment for littering. Living near “good” schools, I see this regularly: students who wouldn’t dream of shoplifting or committing vandalism can flout the rules by dropping litter, without worrying about the consequences – there aren’t any (or if there are, they certainly don’t seem to be having the desired effect).

Sedaris also hinted that embarrassment can be a strong motivator, and recent articles have come out in favour of making littering as “socially unacceptable as drink driving”. While I personally feel such hyperbole can hurt the cause, I do think littering should be stigmatised, and the perpetrators named and shamed. It’s not a harmless or victimless crime: wildlife typically suffers as a result of it, and the £1 billion (yes, BILLION) pounds a year that is spent on cleaning up litter could be used for so many other things (NHS, I’m looking at you).

While I believe the stick side of the equation could make a difference if it were actually enforced consistently across the country, there is also much to be said for the carrot – refunds on returning recyclables or charity schemes that encourage people to put rubbish in bins. If rubbish is viewed as having a value, perhaps it could be a step away from our current disposable society.

While watching the litter inquiry, I got the feeling that the MPs wanted a nice, tidy solution. You do X and, hey presto, you get less rubbish. Yet there is no one solution to the problem of litter, just as there is no one reason for what causes someone to drop rubbish (more on this in a future blog entry). It is not a matter of giving bottle/can refunds when recyclables are returned OR a penalty for littering OR better education in schools. All of these can work together to hopefully eliminate, or at least reduce, the amount of rubbish in our communities and countryside.

Personally, I feel Jane Bickerstaffe, the CEO of INCPEN, was on the right path by highlighting how important it is to understand human behaviour. As someone who has worked on pro-environmental behaviour change in a different field, I think this is an often under-estimated component of bringing about positive change. It’s very simplistic to say people who litter are “idiots” or “stupid, selfish yobs” (although sometimes I admit to mentally grumbling a similar litany while out on a rubbish walk). However, understanding why people are like this, or why rubbish gets dropped here and not there, is the first step to developing more effective and efficient mitigation techniques.

We have been carrying out weekly rubbish walks in Chippenham for the past two months, and in that time we have come to see what a complex issue it actually is. It is not simply a matter of saying “these types of people” are to blame or “we just need more bins” (although a few more along Malmesbury Road in Chippenham wouldn’t go amiss). If the MPs would spend one hour a week picking litter in their constituency, it wouldn’t take long for them to see what an enormous problem it is, identify hot spots, and to theorise their own potential solutions.

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