Community Campaigns and Littering: Why It Takes a United Effort to Make a Difference

Gabriel Ware

Researchers, scientists and project managers are increasingly acknowledging that community engagement, whether through schools, community centres or online, is crucial to achieving results around any common goal. Littering is no different, and due to the amount of work and expense required to alleviate the problem, community engagement and programmes such as Picker Pals are even more important as we struggle to maintain clean streets and properly dispose of waste.

To understand the need for united efforts to prevent and mitigate littering, it is useful to acknowledge how the problem of littering arises, particularly in cities. There is considerable evidence that littering is a vicious cycle. There is a correlation between the presence of litter in a given area and the intentional throwing of litter at that particular spot. When someone sees litter already accumulated somewhere, it gives them the impression it’s acceptable or even the right place to discard items. Social norms can deeply entrench ‘expected’ or ‘accepted’ behaviours. If most other people are seen to be littering, or if a littered environment suggests that littering is a standard behaviour, this encourages further littering. This means that many areas in cities are filled with far more litter than others, but it also means that any area can become a litter spot if just one person decides to discard their litter there regularly.

Cities are also particularly at risk due to the disproportionate amounts of litter that come from sources like construction projects or supermarket car parks. This includes wood, metals, concrete debris, plastics and cardboard. Unfortunately, the residual debris from construction projects is often left on streets and not properly disposed of.

The most worrying cause of littering, however, is simply a lack of stewardship, care or fear of consequences. These factors contribute to a culture of habitual littering, of believing that your tin can, crisp packet or plastic bottle will not cause any harm. If there are enough people that think in this way, (which there are), it becomes inevitable that litter will pile up sufficiently to create serious problems not only for sanitation, but also for the world’s environment and wildlife. Litter feeds on itself and spreads virally where it is seen and becomes part of the scene. Many people are simply too lazy and unwilling to throw away litter appropriately, and many others simply don’t care or are unaware of the potential harm they are causing when they throw their litter on the street. Many do not know that their various acts of littering negatively impact the environment. As a result, people continue to throw litter anywhere without thinking of their environmental consequences. The act of motorists throwing garbage from their cars clearly reveals this kind of attitude. Unfortunately, many believe there will always be others who will pick or clean it up. They do not feel it is their personal responsibility to dispose of their litter appropriately.

So where is the solution? One obvious remedy is a proper environmental education, instilled at an early age through schools. It is not only children who would benefit from education; many adults are completely oblivious too, and even if they were aware, the lack of care or consequences for their littering can make incentivising individuals to change their habits very difficult. This is where the value of community engagement and anti-litter campaigns come in. Programmes like Picker Pals are critical in combating a lack of education and incentivising people to do something about the litter problem.

Children are far better learners than adults, and in turn are often the best educators for their parents or other adults. When children grow up and are conscious of the littering problem and its wider implications, they are more likely to take necessary future measures to mitigate it. Fantastic work is being done around the world by similar programmes, and the value of getting involved is not only communal, but also personal.

Community engagement can be as simple as forming a group amongst neighbours or friends, and common goals can be as simple as cleaning your street, or as lofty as providing education and projects to a wider community, spreading the wider message of anti-littering. It must be central to all anti-littering efforts to emphasise that it is often easy to avoid littering, and that the value of doing so will bring rewards not only to the individual, but, through the cumulation of efforts, the world. Important in this sort of education is not only how litter affects the locale and the environment, but also more specific information on what exactly ‘counts as littering’, including information on items, occasions, locations and situations in which people are particularly prone to littering. Picker Pals helps to ingrain a sense of awareness of litter and wider environmental issues and what specifically people can do as individuals, families and groups to combat it.

This might mean developing interventions that specifically focus on, for example, litter on trains, or littering at events in public places. Explaining why these behaviours are not acceptable by highlighting their various negative impacts, could increase acceptance of the message and help internalise this new understanding. By implication, this information targets a specific audience as main culprits, but the incentive is placed with both the individual and the wider community to improve their own behaviours.

All efforts in community engagement, importantly, should foster a safe, trusting environment, which enables any citizen to provide input. This is crucial as the desired outcome, personal and communal incentivisation, can only arrive when participants don’t feel as if they are either passengers in or are not engaged in the campaign, or they feel like they are simply being told that they must change. Ensuring early involvement with programmes or common goals is also important, as the sooner a community is willing to act, the more effective the results will be, which will go on to inspire future efforts. It is evidenced that the involvement of a wide range of people from a variety of backgrounds can lead to more successful campaigns, and thus the wider they reach, the more effective they are.

It is clear, therefore, that campaigns such as Picker Pals, focused on education and community engagement are crucial to combating littering and its effects. They are, perhaps, the only way to ensure the streets don’t pile up with garbage beyond the means of litter-pickers and to make sure that future generations are aware of and incentivised to tackle the problem until it no longer exists and we can all enjoy a clean and safe environment.

Gabriel Ware

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