Putting Litter First: April

I am going to start the Putting Litter First series with a confession. You may find this hard to believe, but it’s time I got this off my chest:

I don’t pick up litter because I like to pick up litter. I don’t write about litter because I find it a fascinating topic. I don’t tweet or give presentations to community groups about litter because I think it’s relaxing. I would love to spend my free time in a very different way: maybe helping hedgehogs or promoting the work of pollinators, showing simple ways we can all reduce our wastelines, or perhaps just curling up with a good book.

It may be 1 April, but this admission is not an April Fools joke. I do all of these things—the cleaning, the writing, the social media—because I cannot just sit idly by while a beautiful country is trashed. But I don’t want to do it forever.

Instead, I prefer to picture a future where Chippenham—and the rest of the UK—is genuinely litter free. Where I can go for a walk and enjoy the scenery without needing to bring along a bag and a litter picker. Where the attitude that litter makes a job for someone is consigned to the dustbin of history. Where there is a cultural auto-pilot in place when it comes to litter: rubbish gets taken home or put in a bin. Anything else is considered unacceptable.

So, on that note, I’m going to assume that everyone reading this is already doing their bit when it comes to cleaning. You pick up and bin litter when you see it, or you’re organising regular community clean ups. Maybe you’ve gotten your friends, family members, neighbours, co-workers, and other colleagues involved in cleaning to expand the anti-litter choir. Perhaps you’re even running an adopt-a-street scheme to keep your patch looking good. This is all fantastic!

But cleaning alone will not make that future I described come to pass.

Don’t get me wrong: cleaning does have an important role to play. Litter is known to attract more litter, so keeping areas clean can help send the message that places are being looked after. Community clean ups likewise tend to serve as a gateway to 1) raise awareness of the problem of litter, and 2) get people involved in wider environmental issues. For these reasons, cleaning is a necessary piece of the puzzle … but it’s not the silver bullet to stopping it.

This is because a vital piece of the equation has been overlooked: the behaviour that leads to litter in the first place. It’s only by stopping the behaviour that we can stop the litter … and stopping the behaviour means reaching those who are likely to litter.

This is an admittedly broad category in the UK. According to the “Litterbugs” report published by the CPRE:

    • Young males are more likely to litter than any other group in society.
    • 42% of smokers think it is acceptable to drop litter.
    • While 28% of people admit to littering, Keep Britain Tidy estimates that the true number is closer to 62%.
    • Polling showed that 15% of people thought that if an area was “already littered” then they were justified in adding to it. On top of this, 37% of respondents felt that littering is sometimes or always acceptable if there are not enough bins.

Regular clean ups cannot hope to reach those who hold such attitudes. Indeed, research also shows that there’s a paradox at play when it comes to cleanliness. Areas without litter are likely to stay clean(ish) longer unless it’s known that areas are cleaned on a regular basis. In these situations, people are more likely to leave litter because they assume that someone else will clean it up. Coupled with beliefs like “littering is okay because it makes a job for someone” or “I pay my Council tax”, and it’s probably no surprise that the UK remains highly littered.

How do we in the anti-litter choir get our message through to the people who are setting fire to the pews?

In part, we have to recognise that those who litter (or engage in what Zero Waste Scotland refer to as “littering incidents”), do not necessarily have the same motivations or mindsets as those of us who don’t. We cannot expect that our emotional triggers and motivations will be the same as theirs.

Indeed, the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign highlighted the importance of using the right language and the right imagery that will resonate with the target audience. Furthermore, behaviour change research shows there are ways of phrasing things that will have a bigger impact, such as “Use a bin” instead of “Don’t litter”.

On top of the right words and the right pictures, I think it is important to get the message into the hands of the right people: those who are in the right place to help us expand our influence. For far too long we have relied on the scattershot approach of social media: we post photos, we tweet, we share … to people who already hold our values and beliefs. Unfortunately, preaching to the converted hasn’t gotten us very far.

For a better use of our time and energy, shouldn’t we consider focusing on those who have the potential to help us act and achieve greater impact?

Yesterday I introduced the swiss cheese model: multiple layers of action that allow us to use all of the tools available to us. Throughout the next year, Putting Litter First will be published on the first of each month to highlight how we can amplify our efforts and build up those layers. After all, the sooner we can put a stop to litter, the sooner we can focus on the myriad of other problems we’re facing!

So the homework assignment for this first month is simple: have a think about who you know and what they do. Those friends, family members, neighbours, co-workers, and colleagues from clubs or societies—could you potentially have a chat with them about litter? Over the next 12-months, I’ll be highlighting how these groups can all play a role in helping us to change attitudes and behaviour:

I know many of these industries are dealing with the effects of the pandemic, and the last thing I want to do is add to their workload. However, there is an opportunity to at least begin a dialogue. After all, the UK did not get to the point of being covered in litter overnight, and we’re not going to solve it overnight either—but we have to at least make a start if we want to get to the finish line.

Because there’s no quick fix to the problem of litter, it’s necessary to take a proactive, long-term and preventive approach if we genuinely want to stop it. Join me on the first of every month as I explore how we can focus our energy and attention on potential solutions. Sign up to have these messages sent directly to your inbox:

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