Q&A

My obsession with litter has spilled into my day job.  At a recent training exercise, I had to facilitate a session about a topic of my choice … you can guess what I picked.  While I was initially worried that my colleagues might think rubbish an odd choice of subjects to discuss, I was gratified to hear that they felt equally passionate about it. 

Elio in particular brought with him a different perspective having been raised in Spain and lived elsewhere in Europe.  He was happy to answer some questions I had about about the cultural differences to rubbish in the UK vs. elsewhere in Europe.

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Q.  Where have you lived and how does it compare to the UK in terms of litter?

I
have lived in Spain, Switzerland and China, which present different
degrees of tolerance to it. However, I think littering is more prevalent
in the UK that in other countries in Western Europe I have visited.

Q.  What
cultural differences do you think contribute to the difference in
litter?  For example, is there a culture of eating and drinking on the
move in these places?

I
would say the key here is what the people know about waste disposal and
how much effort are they willing to put into it. I think that in other
European countries the importance of waste sorting in stressed in public
campaigns and the appropriate facilities are present for the citizens
to use. Public awareness is combined with measures discouraging
excessive packaging, e.g. most Western European countries have banned or
taxed plastic bags, so most people use reusable bags and, most
importantly, know the impact of reducing waste.

Q.  Is there any incentive to recycle (such as a refund), or any punishment for littering?

Littering
and not sorting waste imply a fine, but I don’t know to which extent
this is enforced. However, I think that raising public awareness is more
effective than punishing uncivilized behaviours. Both approaches can be
combined though.

Q.  How
were you brought up with regards to litter?  Was it something that was
discussed at home or school, or was it implicit?  Are there any
education programmes/public information adverts that run continuously to
stop littering, or is it a family/respect attitude that is passed down
to younger generations?

It
was discussed at home and it was also part of the school curriculum
(including activities such as visits to recycling plants); a strong
effort has been made to include these contents in textbooks.
Nevertheless, I would say there are mixed results as the efficiency and
impact of waste disposal varies from one regions to others, as it
happens also within Europe, which in my opinion suggests that there is
still work to do.

Q.  The
UK has reached a crisis point with regards to litter.  What types of
things do you think could be tried here to help reduce the problem?

The
problem might be that any serious measures require investment. Raising
public awareness, enforcing the norms regarding littering, sorting
waste, reusing and recycling as much as possible are a long term
investment, much longer that a politician’s term in office.

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A few things jumped out at me.  First, waste and recycling is integrated into daily life with campaigns and education.  It is seen as something important for residents to know about.  In the UK, the feeling I get is that many people do not give waste a second thought – rubbish is put into a black bag that is carted away by the Council.  Out of sight is out of mind.  Here’s hoping that the recent BBC programme The Wastemen may be the start of a new dialogue about waste in this country.

Second, the description of enforcing norms as a long term investment is particularly telling.  I’ve mentioned previously that it seems that litter has been not taken seriously as a problem for at least the past decade.  As a result of this short sighted approach, we have reached the point we are at now.  Recycling rates in the UK are lowLitter covers our streets, countryside, and coasts.  And further budget cuts mean that it is only likely to get worse.

However, there is something that everyone can do that is free of charge and which will make a difference.  Do your part to keep your patch clean.  Set an example that littering will not be tolerated, and that reusing and recycling is the way to go.  Recognise that we are responsible for the mess we’re now in … and that
with a bit of time and effort we can also be responsible for getting us out.

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