Guest Post by: Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology
With all that’s in the news this month I have struggled to feel positive. Everything was getting on top of me until recognised and dealt with an issue that’s been particularly bothering which I’ve ignored and left to fester:
The expanding mountain of rubbish – litter – trash
I knew I was going to be irritated when I walked my dog in the park last week. It was a bank holiday weekend and the weather had been lovely. I expected the masses had enjoyed the sunshine in the beautiful outdoors, relaxing and experiencing the wonderful rejuvenating effects of nature. I’m all for that.
However, as expected, I walked through the park and found the evidence of those people having been there. The crisp packets, the sandwich wrappers, the drink bottles, poo in dog bags left by the bushes (why do that – if no-one is watching it is still not ok!) and plastic bags now living amongst the leaves, snagged in branches of the trees. The walk in the park is no longer relaxing for me as the litter is making the experience more and more stressful.
Usually I pick up most litter I come across everyday but I left it there because the growing amount made me feel so frustrated. I wanted everyone who came after me to see the mess and hopefully be moved by the amount that’d been discarded on the lovely grass and do something about it (pick it up/ or complain to the council/ or to coca-cola and the beer/cider companies who made most of the bottles now empty on the ground – do anything but leave it there.)
I remember reading the blog of an inspiring young man from one of the first stories I read when I started subscribing to Happy Eco news. He spends much of his time collecting trash and clearing up parks and did not focus on the negatives – I wished I could be more like him.
I wanted to shake everyone who’d thrown litter on the ground without a thought as to what is going to happen to it, and to shout out for the love of God pick it up if you see it (it’s all around you). The more I’ve thought about it the more I realise that I see litter everywhere as a red flag. A flashing light signalling the level of what seems like a lack of care about the environment. And what seems like a lack of belief it is possible to change our habits. It really bothers me.
I am very lucky to live in the country that I do which has green spaces and good infrastructure. Our parks are eventually cleared by some responsible citizens and council litter pickers but it’s never enough as the next tide of rubbish is inevitably on its way. And when the parks are cleared up its only the visible grassy areas, the rubbish under the bushes remains untouched because no one sees it and no one looks. But this is where the animals, birds, and insects shelter and look for nourishment and who will come across it as it accumulates for the next few hundred years. I see it. It seems The Earth is being used as a toilet in plain sight. I was really struggling to understand why it is hard for so many to keep our environment clean.
I did some research which helped alleviate some negativity and helped me find a way to reframe the issue for me. I found a website that mirrors my frustrations and has come up with ideas to solve the issues ( litter blog ). Elsewhere I learnt lots of facts such as some people don’t see leaving rubbish behind as littering if they leave their disposable cup on a wall and not the ground. An excellent report on the analysis of research on litter ( zero waste scotland report ) identifies many behaviours responsible for why people litter such as the “ick factor”, if it is yucky or sticky people will want to get rid of it quickly at any cost, many rationalise their litterbug behaviour quickly to alleviate themselves from any guilt. This report gives many recommendations such as educating people on what actually counts as litter, addressing what the social norms are, sending out strong signals about what it is not appropriate and encouraging behaviour that is such as personal responsibility, and it signposts readers to places where this type of action has already proven to have worked.
Other research has found that beacons attract more litter ( beacons of litter ) – the area where litter is dropped is more likely to attract more litter, and brightly coloured litter will attract more litter too as litterbugs’ eyes are more drawn to it are more likely to leave their plastic droppings there too.
I came across a fantastic website ( off-the-ground ) by a Behaviour Change Researcher who lists over 20 different reasons why people drop litter, and she provides insights from research and suggestions to implement behavioural changes that are needed, such as instead of focussing on why people drop litter, instead ask “why do people not drop litter” and build a campaign or programme from there.
My thoughts turned to looking out for what was going right in the fight against litter and I found the following uplifting articles. Germany, Rwanada, India, and Kenya are some of the top countries in the world to tackle plastic pollution. India has pledged to eliminate all single-use plastic by 2022, impressively Rwanda has become the first plastic free nation with strict laws punishing anyone caught with plastic, and 99% of Germany’s plastic bottles are returned for recycling ( 10 countries plastic pollution ). The city of Curitiba, Brazil recycles over 70% of it’s waste, San Fransico plans to have zero Landfills by 2030 and already most of the city’s waste is already recycled. In 2002 the food recycling rate in South Korea was 2% now it is up to 95% and most of its other waste is recycled (10 Countries Sustainability). Several countries have faced up to the pollution epidemic and have made a positive difference. Rwanda stands out again as one of it’s main cities Kigali is one of the cleanest in the world, one reason is that everyone spends 3 hours tidying up the city on the last Saturday of every month. Several other cities have gone in hard with fining people for littering which makes a big difference o how clean the streets are such as in Singapore ( culture of cleanups).
I am sure you have heard of litter parties springing up everywhere, and of plogging (Jogging and picking-up litter as you go), there are also organisations like “clean4change” ( Clean4Change ) who help organise clean up’s in cities all around the world and have initiatives such as “Litterati” where people send in photos of trash so data can be collated about the sources of where it is mostly coming from. And Greenpeace has been on the case for years forholding Businesses to account. It is currently lobbying Coca-cola who are responsible for producing the plastic bottles that are most discarded on the planet for 3 years in a row.
I feel inspired by all of this research and action. And want to put forward some more ideas for change and invite you to share yours. How about making it law for companies to have to put images of mountains of litter onto their packaging just like cigarette packaging has to in the UK– and to warn of the consequences of littering. Or force them to display the figures of how many plastic bottles are estimated to be floating in the oceans damaging the marine life?
Or what about a worldwide organisation like the United Nations against pollution, that puts a price on how much it costs to clean up each country and sends a bill to each company that has produced the product that is irresponsibly thrown away instead of recycled?
And when I walk Kobi (my naughty but gorgeous Terrier) in the park tomorrow, instead of wishing that the fleas of a thousand camels infest the underwear of all the litterbugs. I will instead pick up the litter and think about how I am contributing to a cleaner world just like many others that I now see. I recognise we are transitioning towards both a desire for and towards a cleaner world. There is inevitable resistance, that’s what I see in the park, but there are also more and more people and organisations out there coming up with great ideas and implementing them. Many barriers to change and opportunities to overcome them are being identified and achieved and I want to hear all about them because these stories replenish my energy and hope.