The Problem with Cleaning

This may seem an odd blog title for a page that calls itself Rubbish Walks and organises regular community clean ups, but bear with me a moment.  If you read my recent litter strategy, you’ll know that I don’t view cleaning up as a long-term way of preventing litter—and shouldn’t that be where we are trying to get to?

Cleaning presents a paradox that must be considered.  In general, clean areas tend to stay clean and littered areas tend to attract more litter.  This means that areas have to be KEPT clean: it is not enough to clean an area once a year and say job done.  This was the reason behind Rubbish Walks in the first place, to encourage people to keep an eye on their own local patch and prevent litter from building up and setting an undesired norm.

At the same time, research from Zero Waste Scotland has shown that areas that are known to be cleaned on a regular basis (e.g. because attention is drawn to the fact with workers in hi-vis jackets), tend to attract litter because the litterers know that it will be cleaned.  You can’t win.

As individuals, cleaning is something that we can all do to improve the appearance of our communities rather than moaning about the current state. I also admit there’s a great sense of satisfaction to see an area transform from littered to clean: this instant gratification is truly rewarding.

Yet on a national level, cleaning is also relatively quick, easy, and cheap compared the programme necessary to change the attitudes and habits of those who do litter (Keep Britain Tidy reports that 62% of the public fall under this category).  Cleaning gives the impression of action by attacking the symptom.  However, the root cause is left untouched.  Can you imagine if other things were done like this?  It would be like a town dealing with a series of arson attacks, but the only thing that happens is extinguishing the flames, without any attempt to find and stop the culprit responsible.

Right now, we cannot NOT clean.  Clean ups are absolutely vital to prevent us from living in a filthy environment and, perhaps even more importantly, to start the dialogue about litter in our communities … but what happens next?  For example, how will Clean for the Queen capitalise on the momentum it’s gathered to change the mindsets of those doing the littering—rather than reinforcing the idea that cleaning up is someone else’s job?  How can we instil pride in our environment and our communities? How will we get to the point where money is no longer being thrown at the same thing again and again, but can be utilised for education, the NHS, and other public services?

In short, what will we do to make sure clean ups are no longer necessary?

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Although you can’t tell by looking at it, this area on Union Road is occasionally given a thorough cleaning … and it will continue to need one on a regular basis unless something can be done to break the habit of those who treat it like a bin.

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