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.”
But there’s no point simply wringing our hands and complaining about the selfish few who are destroying the rural environment. We need to understand why the problem is growing and work out what we can do to turn the tide.
John Read, who founded the Clean Up Britain campaign group some eight years ago, makes no secret of his frustration at the inability of many sections of society to combat the problem.
The group is not party political but 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 know that litter erodes our sense of community spirit and may increase the likelihood of other crimes, like graffiti and vandalism.
COUNTRY ROADS: 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.”
Part of John Read’s mission is to turn back the tide of global pollution by tackling the problem at source. And while he applauds community clean-up efforts, he says that the problem will just reappear within days if the reasons behind the littering are not addressed.
“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 has 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 said: “Littering is a socially undesirable behaviour that is highly amenable to being managed using methods from behavioural science.
“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.”
The 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.
Let’s remember the alternative – 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]
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 has spawned initiatives like the Daily Mail’s Turn The Tide On Plastic campaign.
UNDER THREAT: a tuskfish on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef [PICTURE: BBC]
Such moves are significant because, as the WBS paper makes clear, there is no single solution to effecting behavioural change.
One irony is that people don’t want litter in their own garden – and will sometimes be throwing rubbish onto the street to keep their own vehicle clean. So how do you go about making people less selfish?
One example is that of dog owners picking up after their pets. In a relatively short period, public expectations have changed sufficiently so that nowadays most dog owners clean up streets and lawns after their pets, even when they know no one can see them.
Such changes can be traced back to legislative changes like the “pooper scooper” law (actually the Canine Waste Law) passed in New York City in 1978, imposing a $50 fine on dog owners who don’t clean up after their pets. Similar legislation in the UK has included the Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act 1996 and Clean Neighbourhoods & Environment Act 2005.
Due to limited enforcement, such legal changes are ineffective if they are not supported by social incentives – the hard glares of passers-by and the offenders’ feelings of guilt.
Could similar changes be achieved with littering? Can councils make bins easier to use and more accessible, and should the government introduce schemes to reward non-littering? Small changes to our environment can significantly affect our behaviour, it seems, because people are prone to “follow the crowd”.
“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.”
Research statistics in this field are dramatic. As long as there were just one or two pieces of litter in an area, most people did not litter, with up to 90% of people using bins. However, as soon as there were three of more pieces visible, the number of litterers increased to 41%.
Similarly, littering doesn’t just encourage more littering, but also influences other anti-social behaviours such as spraying graffiti or trespassing.
“Many of the heaviest litterers are teenagers, who, on the one hand, want to express their independence and nonconformity; and on the other hand have a strong need of belonging and being a part of a group.
“By littering, young people can express their disregard for rules while, at the same time, building an us-vs-them identity, clearly separating themselves from the rest of the society (“the majority”, grown-ups, the government, etc).”
The trouble is that even when we know something is wrong, we may still spontaneously forget to behave in the most socially acceptable way. Communication is a major tool in encouraging people to share common values, but perhaps when faced with selfish individuals one of the most powerful tools is to create a new path of least resistance, replacing bad habits with new ones…perhaps with financial incentives, like the plastic bag charge in supermarkets, or with bottle deposit charges, for example.
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.
“Put simply, the less paper and plastic is used to package food items, the less litter will end up on the streets. We encourage companies, especially fast-food restaurants, to limit the amount of packaging used.
“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.”
There could be scope for clean-up days which boost community spirit and social shaming to act as a deterrent, with examples from around the world of social network efforts to outlaw inconsiderate parking, for example.
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.
Most important, we believe the crucial starting point for our local campaign must be to lead by example and start working with local councils across the area to make a real difference to the local environment.
We agree with the WBS researchers that before one can hope to see a significant change in people’s attitudes and behaviour, existing litter needs to be removed from highways, parks and other public locations.
Yes, we can lobby councils and central government to do more. But we believe that communities working together can achieve great things – and that includes helping to ensure a new “social norm” of cleanliness is established, which can be a focus for local pride and community identity.
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.
Watch this space as we step up our own campaign to start making an impact on the ground locally – one small step at a time.