Putting litter in its place: Off the ground
I was eight years old when I won my first—and, thus far, only—poster contest. The theme was Earth Day and my recollection of the design is of a trash can with hands sticking out of the top to catch the Earth and prevent it from landing in the bin. The caption was something like “Stop throwing away our planet.”
Much of my twenties was dedicated to my education and pursuing an alphabet soup of degrees in archaeological studies: BA, MA, PhD. This was followed by several years as a post-doctoral researcher investigating how to promote behaviour change to benefit the environment.
The result? A perfect storm that led to the adoption of what is perhaps one of the strangest hobbies on record: picking up litter, recording statistics about what was found, and blogging about rubbish on a regular basis. After all, what are archaeological artefacts but litter from the past? Or, phrased another way, what is litter but future archaeological remains? And, ultimately, shouldn’t the goal be to change the behaviour that caused litter in the first place?
I discovered I was in good company. Fellow Americans like Bill Bryson and David Sedaris had developed the same obsession; indeed, the latter now has a bin lorry named after him. As transplants to the UK, I suspect we all fell in love with the beauty of the country and its rich history. The litter that is so common along our streets and in our communities, in the countryside and along the coastline, is at odds with the vision we have of a green and pleasant land.
My own anger at the litter within the town of Chippenham saw the development of the community group Off the Ground. While its original purpose was to organise local litter picks, it has developed into a platform for me to broadcast ideas to the wider world about how we can each do our bit to put an end to litter.
This has given me the opportunity to dust off my poster design skills. Over the years, I’ve played around with:
- A series of custom signs for shops.
- April Fools’ posters that have a serious message about the need for interventions at point of sale, before packaging turns into litter.
- Football posters to encourage supporters to do the right thing (because littering is their own goal).
- Signs that provide food for thought.
There are even designs that underscore the fact that posters aren’t necessarily a solution. Rather than imposing our own beliefs onto anti-litter messaging, we need to step back and determine what language and imagery is going to resonate with those who are more likely to litter.
However, this isn’t just about raising awareness. My assumption is that those of us who want to bring an end to litter are well aware of the problem! Instead, it’s about thinking of how we can all amplify and multiply the message throughout our networks, using our skills to call attention to the problem in a way that will lead to results. For example, my husband is a singer and songwriter, and we’ve been able to get several anti-litter parodies on the radio to spread the message in a new way.
As someone who has spent a decade collecting litter, reading research about litter, speaking to people about litter, and otherwise obsessively thinking about litter, I have discovered that there are a number of barriers to bringing an end to this problem. Addressing them would go a long way to cleaning up the country:
- Joined-up thinking: At present, there is no joined-up thinking about litter. Each local authority has their own system in place, and, despite the ostensible national litter strategy, there is no unified approach. For example, Devon actually has litter enforcement wardens who communicate with the local litter picking groups: this lets the wardens know areas they should focus on while showing the group the difference they’re making within their community.
- Long-term thinking: Related to the need for joined-up thinking, it is also necessary to think longer term, rather than simply focusing on a brief campaign or what can be accomplished in the space of an election cycle. Changing behaviour with a four-week blitz is almost impossible. Instead, it’s necessary to change the culture with constant, consistent messaging.
- Aiming for 100%: Beyond being too short, many campaigns fall down because they are not fully supported, either in time, effort, or finance. A half-hearted approach solves nothing. Instead, we must consider how we can boost at least two out of three of these factors to bring about a genuine difference. Believe it or not, money is often the least important!
- In-group policing: A key issue highlighted by the multi-decade Don’t Mess with Texas campaign is that messages from authority don’t work. Instead, in-group policing has been shown to be more effective because it can result in a shift of mindset: “people like me don’t litter”. Co-creation of messages within different communities of people seems like it should have a far greater chance of success than a top-down or authoritative approach.
- Use evidence: Regardless of what’s done to tackle litter, there is a real need for evidence-based interventions. Otherwise, how do we know what works and what doesn’t? This means we need metrics (how do we define success?) and data collection. Does poster A or poster B having a greater impact at reducing the amount of litter in a local park? We won’t know unless we measure!
- Stop re-inventing the wheel: Once we know what works—and, equally, what’s been shown to be ineffective—we need a way to disseminate this to local authorities, anti-litter organisations, and the thousands of volunteers who work to beautify their communities. There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel by constantly developing new interventions or trialling things that don’t get the job done.
- Beyond litter picking: In improvisational comedy, there is a technique known as “Yes, and …” The idea is that you take what your comedic partner has given you and add to it. Constantly building on what each partner offers is where the real magic of improv happens. If we are serious about keeping our communities tidy, we must go beyond just hosting litter picks and running student poster contests. Yes, we do them … and we also must focus on changing behaviour.
In an ideal world, I would love to see local and national governments put litter first so that we can see the end of it. Because it’s often seen as no more than a minor annoyance—despite the incredible amount of time and money that goes into cleaning it up—it never jumps up the priority list.
The result is all around us: because litter is never treated as important or addressed proactively, it never gets solved. Yet if we could engage in upstream thinking and focus on preventing litter from happening in the first place, imagine the incredible environmental projects the army of volunteer litter pickers could focus on instead. At the very least, I would be able to get a new hobby!