The past 18 months has seen me talking rubbish with some incredible people from across the UK, who represent organisations ranging from A to Z:
- Pat, better known as Action Nan.
- Annette from Clean Devon.
- John from Clean Up Britain.
- Harry from Clean Up UK.
- Lee from Eco-Schools.
- Dave from Natural Apptitude (creator of the Pooper Snooper app).
- Ray from the North Devon Wardens.
- Debbie from Rubbish Friends in Hull.
- Jason from Rubbish Walks.
- Mark from the Scarab Trust.
- Quentin from Zilch.
I’ve also spent the last month attending a series of virtual workshops offered by Livvy Drake from Sustainable Sidekicks regarding behaviour change, including a bonus webinar about littering run by Litter Free Dorset that featured updates from Hubbub and Mindfully Wired. You can check it out yourself here.
I’ll be honest: the thing that jumped out at me from all of these conversations and activities was not any new information.*
Instead, it was that we are all more or less saying the same thing when it comes to litter. How often do you get so many people singing from the same hymn sheet … but so little action taken from those who have the power to do so?**
We are all familiar with the research that has been done about behaviour change in general and litter in particular. We know what the potential solutions are, and we have a lot of specific ideas for what can be done. We recognise that there is no single magic bullet that is going to fix the problem, but rather that there is a need for layers of solutions to tackle the cause of the issue, not just the symptom.
There are thousands of people who have been led to believe that litter picking is the only thing that can be done in the battle against litter. There are dozens of local authorities who appear unwilling to try anything different. All of the existing research seems to be ignored. All of those ideas—from Hubbub’s glow-in-the-dark bin messages to Zilch’s micro bins—get trialled then forgotten.
There is no dissemination of what works and what doesn’t, no scaling up or iteration of ideas. Instead, we constantly reinvent the wheel.
There is no messaging that resonates with those who are more likely to litter. Instead, messaging tends to appeal to those of us who are working in the trenches to stop it.
There is no long-term strategy. Instead, we have short, one-off campaigns, even though it’s not possible to change a culturally embedded habit in 6-8 weeks.
What does this have to do with Putting Litter First? The goal of this monthly series is to look at what is within our power to control. What is the middle ground between running regular community litter picks forever or relying on the government to finally take litter and waste seriously?
Ultimately, littering is about people: those who litter, and those who are fighting against it. I think this why one of the ideas that regularly crops up throughout all of my conversations is the power of role models to influence behaviour. After all, people can also serve to inspire, motivate, and enthuse. Yet this is a potential solution that I cannot recall seeing properly implemented outside of the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign.
Celebrity anti-litter ambassadors for Keep Britain Tidy have included Kirstie Allsop and Julia Bradbury. As a middle-aged woman myself, I know who they are (and I’m personally a big fan of Julia’s walking programmes). However, the young adults who are most likely to litter do not. In part, littering has been shown to be a rejection of authority figures. Why would the demographic who is most likely to litter listen to someone who looks like their mother?***
I know that Marcus Rashford is already busy trying to make sure families get fed, but who else is in the right demographic (young men aged 16-25) with a large following on Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube?**** Who do you know on a local, regional, or national level who fits the profile and would be willing to speak out against litter? Not just once but constantly, using language that will resonate with their audience? Who is willing to step up and tell his cohorts that littering is unacceptable?
Share your suggestions in the comments. Even better? Reach out to them and ask if they would like to get involved in putting litter first so we can see the last of it.
* Although it’s all good information. Seriously, go ahead and check it out.
** Okay, this is a fairly common occurrence in anything related to the environment, from climate change to the recent raw sewage debacle.
*** No offense meant to Kirstie or Julia.
**** These are the social media channels where the age groups who are more likely to litter hang out. Those of us shouting about litter on Twitter and Facebook are pretty much just shouting to other anti-litter people.
ABOUT PUTTING LITTER FIRST:
The year-long series Putting Litter First (so we can see the end of it!) is about trying to find a middle ground when it comes stopping litter in our communities. Often, it seems like there’s a false choice presented: those who are working to stop litter can either run a litter pick or they can lobby government for higher fines or for programmes like the Deposit Return Scheme.
The problem with this dichotomy is that most of us are already doing the first bit. We’ve been picking up litter from Chippenham for six years without a noticeable decrease in the amount of rubbish found. On the other hand, waiting for the government to get its act together with higher fines, sensible enforcement, and a proper Deposit Return Scheme feels like an exercise in futility. We can (and we should) campaign for these changes, but, at the same time, we must recognise that the outcome is outside of our control.
Instead, I think there are things that can be done at the community level if enough people are willing to step forward to help make it happen. A big part of this involves making sure that the right people are aware of what tools are available and not re-inventing the wheel. Interested in learning more? Sign up to have the latest Putting Litter First blog post delivered to you on the first of every month.