HOW do we prevent litter and fly-tipping from destroying our countryside?
By understanding its roots, joining forces to work together and tackling the issue “one nudge at a time”.
At least, that’s the approach advocated by Clean Up Britain, a hard-hitting campaign group which doesn’t pull any punches about the failure of government, industry and charities to properly get to grips with the problem.
Broadcaster and Clean Up Britain patron Jeremy Paxman summed up many people’s reaction to the problem when he said: “Ours is a beautiful country and I just don’t understand why people would want to drop litter – it makes me angry and depressed.”
John Read, who founded the campaign group, makes no secret of his frustration at the inability of many sections of society to combat the problem.
The group worries that politicians are often too concerned about short-term goals to take the longer view. Existing groups like the environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy seem to have lost their drive – and much of their funding. And private companies are more interested in their bottom line than in doing anything more than pay lip service to environmental concerns.
Worse still has been the commercial drive towards “greenwashing”, where organisations spend considerably more time and money on advertising their green credentials than in practices which are genuinely environmentally sound.
Extreme examples range from changing the names or labels of products to falsely evoke the natural environment on a product that contains harmful chemicals to multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns portraying highly polluting energy companies as eco-friendly.
There’s no real argument about the detrimental effects of litter – from the £1bn-plus cost of cleaning it up to the fact that four out of five people say that seeing litter on the streets makes them frustrated and angry. We also know that litter erodes our sense of community spirit and increases the likelihood of other crimes like graffiti and vandalism.
EYESORE: litter on the A40 in Buckinghamshire [PICTURE: Peter Silverman]
The huge environmental impact includes the harm done to thousands of pets and wild animals, the explosion of plastic litter on beaches and the fact that microplastic particles are now found inside filter feeding animals and among sand grains on our beaches.
“A recent analysis estimated that, by 2050, plastic will outweigh fish in our oceans,” says Clean Up Britain. “It’s a sad and worsening picture and with litter levels up 500% in the last 50 years a new approach needs to be taken.
“700,000 plastic bottles are littered every day,” he says. “It’s becoming imperative that businesses take action on environmental issues over which they have some control.”
His organisation teamed up with behavioural scientists at Warwick Business School, part of the University of Warwick, to explore the root causes behind littering, and how it can be tackled.
Professor Daniel Read of the Behavioural Science Group at WBS says: “Most people don’t actively want to litter, but do so because it is convenient, because they see other people doing it, and often because they don’t think about what they are doing.”
A WBS paper, Using Behavioural Insights to Reduce Littering in the UK, written by Julia Kolodko and Umar Taj, takes a look at potential interventions to change the behaviour and attitudes of litterers in the UK.
The paper explains how littering is a classic commons dilemma where people act in self-interest for short-term personal gain and thereby overuse shared environmental resources which are eventually depleted.
Tragic real-life examples of the devastating effects of such dilemmas include the depletion of fish stocks, extinction of species, impact of unregulated logging, damage to the earth’s atmosphere and the giant patches of rubbish which accumulate in the centre of ocean currents or gyres like the Great Pacific garbage patch.
The WBS team explains how, when there is a shared resource like a park or street, people can choose to maintain that environment (at a cost) or exploit it.
“If a typical litterer drops just a few, usually small, pieces of litter in a day, the impact may not even be noticeable to that person. The problem arises when these small pieces add up; but people don’t appreciate the effect of these small increments on the overall outcome.”
In other words, the easy selfish solution to a small-scale problem outweighs the effort of acting in the collective good…or as Robert Frank in 2010 described it: “smart for one, but dumb for all”.
Issues like littering – along with obesity, debt and global warming – are at the heart of behavioural science, a field of social science that aims to understand how people make decisions and help societies achieve goals for the greater good.
The alternative is extreme: a progressive deterioration in our quality of life. A poor-quality local environment can have wider impacts on public health, including mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, whereas living near good quality, accessible green space can improve mental and physical health.
The fear, of course, is that the deterioration is cumulative, both in encouraging more littering and crime and in undermining community spirit, health and wellbeing.
Yet it’s not all bad news. Sir David Attenborough’s stark message about plastic pollution in our oceans contained in his Blue Planet II TV series clearly had a major impact on viewers – all the more significant as the programme became the most-watched television show of 2017, with a particularly large fan base among the young.
STARK MESSAGE: Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II TV series [PICTURE: BBC]
Then environment secretary Michael Gove said he was “haunted” by images contained in the series of the damage done to the oceans and moves to ban plastic bottles and straws from all Royal estates were said to have been instigated by the Queen after speaking to Sir David about the issue.
Undoubtedly the show contributed to public awareness of the problem of plastic pollution, with widespread calls for more government action to be taken to safeguard the environment. This in turn spawned initiatives like the Daily Mail’s Turn The Tide On Plastic campaign.
Such moves are significant because there is no single solution to effecting behavioural change. Legislative change can make a difference, but due to limited enforcement, legal changes are ineffective if they are not supported by social incentives – the hard glares of passers-by and the offenders’ feelings of guilt.
“If there is a lot of litter on the ground it means that littering is a normal and accepted behaviour,” says the WBS paper. “Environments that are clean will nudge people to use bins, whereas environments that are unclean will nudge them to litter more.”
Those who only litter occasionally, when circumstances ‘force’ them to do so, are likely to be easily embarrassed or persuaded into changing their behaviour. Those who litter habitually because they don’t think about what they are doing, those who fly-tip to avoid fees or charges and those for whom littering is a conscious “anti-social” act are going to need more convincing.
But the WBS researchers argue that it may be best to start with the “low-hanging fruit”, (those who are ready to change) to help create a tipping point where, with time even those more persistent offenders may begin to see their behaviour becoming more unacceptable and abnormal. (It is already illegal under section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.)
Suggestions identified in the WBS research range from improving the availability, accessibility and visibility of litter bins to stepping up fines and campaigning for a massive reduction in packaging.
“Packing a hamburger in a paper wrapping, then putting it in a paper box and then putting the box in a take-away paper bag means that three pieces of litter may end up on the street. If the default is changed into using just one type of packaging and any additional wrapping is made available upon request, most people will leave the restaurant with much less potential litter.”
Along with ingenious ways to redesign packaging and encourage recycling, to spread environmental awareness and educate about the dangers, the researchers come up with plenty of suggestions for foot-in-the-door techniques that encourage people to take those first small steps to tackling the litter crisis.
But they warn of the need for “patience and persistence” – for people to work together to tackle the problem in multiple ways. There’s no quick fix or overnight solution, as John Read from Clean Up Britain is only too quick to recognise, arguing that it could take 20 years to transform the country from being one of the dirtiest in Europe.
For The Beyonder, there are important messages in this research that can help shape our response to the litter and fly-tipping problem in the Chilterns.
We know a clean environment helps to reduce littering behaviour and increase people’s motivation not to litter – particularly if community clean-ups can be achieved with friends, using the strength of social networks as a motivating force.
Involving local schools can also help ensure a new generation of children grow up appreciating the wonder of nature and the importance of protecting their local environment, making them less likely to litter when they grow up to be teenagers and more likely to protest when friends or family members throw something away carelessly.
Look at our “ripple” campaign in this section for ways in which you can play an active role in keeping the Chilterns beautiful.