Thoughts at Four Months

Today marks four months since Rubbish Walks was launched in Chippenham.  In that time, we’ve cleared over 50 bags of general rubbish, and hundreds of cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles.  One thing to be said for going on a rubbish walk is that it gives you plenty of time to think – specifically about how to stop the problem of litter!

So, in an ideal world, what would I suggest?  First, on the clean up front, people should take pride in their homes, their streets, their communities. Imagine if everyone took two minutes and kept the area in front of their house clean of rubbish.  Or picked up just one piece of litter every time they walked down their street.  If businesses would clean up around their premises and their car parks.  If everyone would realise that if we want to live in clean, pleasant communities, we need to step up and take responsibility, not simply rely on the Council to get things done.

But ultimately, this type of mitigation isn’t going to stop people from dropping litter in the first place.  That requires a concerted, joined up effort from many different organisations.  Litter has to be taken seriously as a problem to be solved, like tackling drink driving or other anti-social behaviour.

So how do I think this could be done?  The first step does require government intervention: a “bottle bill” or deposit scheme needs to be introduced to give commonly littered items like plastic bottles, drinks cans, and glass bottles a value.  This serves to disincentivise throwing away or littering items that can be recycled while incentivising the act of picking up this litter.  Countries that use this system report a decrease in litter; I estimate half of what we find in Chippenham falls under this category, so it would make a noticeable difference.  

Why isn’t this being done in Britain?  My assumption is that it’s due to the infrastructure that’s required to set up such a system of returns and payments, and the fact that no one wants to change the existing method of kerbside recycling.  But until waste management is rethought and other options are tried (e.g. Reverse Vending machines), the problem is not going to simply go away (in other words, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got).

What about the other half of the rubbish we find, the crisp packets, the sweet wrappers, the stray carrier bags? If a bottle bill is the carrot, the second half of the equation is the stick – higher fines and zero tolerance for littering.  A £100 (or more) on-the-spot fine for littering may make people think twice about tossing a cigarette butt or dropping a takeaway container.  If applied consistently across the country, it would hopefully encourage people to find the nearest bin instead of just chucking an item onto the pavement or out of a car window.

But it doesn’t end there.  Social marketing has long been recognised as a way to change behaviour, and this is what’s needed from the brands that are most commonly littered.  I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating … The large brands that we commonly find–Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Red Bull, Lucozade–have enormous advertising budgets.  They know who their audience is and what messages will reach them.  Using their skills and deep pockets to produce a consistent, integrated approach to prevent littering (not just a one-off special message) has the potential to reverse the current trend. Combined with a warning printed on all packaging (“Please don’t litter – £100 fine”), a united front can help send a strong message.

Finally, I’d like to see an anti-littering message drilled home through schools, other educational outlets (scouts, guides, youth groups, etc.), and of course from parents.  Respecting public spaces and taking responsibility for one’s actions and belongings is part of living in a modern society.  With a little bit of time and effort, I would hope that younger generations would grow up viewing littering as something that isn’t socially, environmentally, or personally acceptable.

In a perfect world, Rubbish Walks wouldn’t be needed.  But until that time arrives, we have some ideas for potential projects to tackle the educational side of the problem.  So stay tuned to see where the next four months will bring us!

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