Today I grabbed some empty animal feed bags and dropped the kids off to daycare. On the way home I pulled into my road, then pulled over put on my hazard lights, got out and started to pick up rubbish. I was there, parked in the same spot for over an hour. Here is what happened in that time…
I reflected on how I came to be picking up rubbish on a glorious winter day in a picturesque (except for all the rubbish) rural location. It’s not like it is the first time I’ve done this. I’ve picked up plenty of litter in my days. In fact I remember doing it regularly as a kid and also participating in Clean Up Australia Day. Our whole family would get out and pick up rubbish. My parents picked locations that your average person would not walk past. My Dad, a keen fisherman, took us to mangrove areas and the river side. Mum, an avid gardener and bird watcher, lead us to bush tracks and nature reserves. Wherever we went, we always finished up with bags of waste.
It is such a fitting term isn’t it – waste.
At the time I did this I was in-between jobs, I was not working. Well, actually that is not true. There is always work on a farm and in a household with children. I like to be productive and I don’t tend to find myself bored. Each day I think about what I am going to achieve. This morning it was picking up roadside rubbish. I find that analysing litter gets you thinking. For me, I find it difficult to understand what motivates someone to throw it out their car window.
Litter tells a story – are parents the problem?
When you pick up litter in a playground you see lolly and snack wrappers, juice boxes and straws, plastic wrap, baby wipes and disposable nappies. Is it the kids that litter or the parents? So is it fair to say it is a parental issue? Parents have an immense responsibility in raising children. They are in a position of authority. They are in a position of opportunity too. An opportunity to shape the minds of these little humans. To ultimately shape their values and behaviours. If a child deliberately drops litter, that parent can use it as a chance to teach them why it is unacceptable. Now if the parent is the litter bug, we have a societal problem. Not only is there a person littering, this person is teaching their children it is acceptable behaviour.
The other story behind the playground litter is in the food that was packaged. Actually, many of the items are not technically food. Kids snack items that contain sugar, salt, preservatives and very little nutritional value. In fact, many of these items would be detrimental to the child’s health. A nutritional lunch box has less waste.
Roadside litter is a bit different. The majority consists of beverage containers. Most of which are recyclable. So who is contributing to this litter? Who buys soft drinks, flavoured milks and takeaway coffee? Litter gives us clues into the demographic of a litter bug. You don’t see organic corn puffs wrappers or non-homogenised milk bottles littered… Is there a link between health and education?
Is it cultural?
While we learn values from our parents, our overall upbringing shapes who we are and therefore how we approach life. Our society and cultural surroundings play a major part in forming this identity. And there are many other factors that contribute too. So how do we tackle litter at a cultural level? Consistent messages from institutions is one way. Government buildings, offices and facilities can either show visible support for a clean country culture or no message at all. This applies at all level of government – local councils, state and federal level.
As well as institutions, businesses have the power to influence thinking towards littering.
Of course, littering is just one element of environmental damage. The thing I’ve learnt about behaviour is that once someone has seen the benefits, understands the reasoning and is supported to change, a change of behaviour often results in changes to related behaviours. That is, if someone changes their attitude in one way, they can, and are likely, to change it in many ways. I think the issue is definitely a community and cultural issue. Collectively there are so many aspects that contribute to shaping an individuals appreciation of the environment. It is certainly a challenge to then propel them to actively do something positive about it.
Is there a solution?
There are activities that every person can do individually. We know that not all individuals care about the environment though. An individual that does care can be a role model and act to influence others – especially children. Parents play a huge part in education. When the messages are reinforced through schooling it helps.
There I was bending down picking up rubbish this morning. Many cars whizzed past in this time. I wonder what they thought when they saw me? A couple of them stopped and offered works of encouragement. One man turned around, and approached me. He was a local, like me. He said that he would be happy to support someone that was taking the time to help the environment. He pulled out his business card and explained his services and said he would be happy to look after me if I needed anything he had to offer. Picking up litter is not a glamorous task. Most of the time there is little visibility in what you are doing. But generally speaking that does not motivate the type of person that picks up litter. They do it because they understand the benefit.
What can you do?
We all have the same amount of time in our day, our week, our month. It is therefore up to each of us to choose how to spend it. Not many of us put the task of picking up litter on our to do list. Here are a few tips that may help get you out there and make it happen:
- Keep supplies on hand. Bags in the car will allow you to stop at anytime and pick up litter. Feed bags are my favourite as they are durable. A pair of gloves is a good idea too. It can be dirty work. Keep a bag in the pram or your back pocket if you are walking.
- Consider safety. Pull off any roads and ensure your car is visible to any passing cars. Make sure there is enough room beside the road for you to walk. Good weather also offers better visibility for motorists so work when Mother Nature is cooperating.
- Have a goal. It may be to fill a certain number of bags or perhaps it is to spend 10 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour picking up litter.
- Use Clean Up Australia Day as a prompt, but don’t be limited by this. Choose a time that suits you.
- Involve the kids if it is safe to do so. Road side pick ups are probably best for adults to attend to. A playground may be better suited for involving the kids.
- Teach children as you go. Keep it simple. Explain what you are doing and why. Encourage them to act conscientiously. You are a role model and will inadvertently teach them good habits and not-so-good habits. Try to be conscious of what you say and do.
- Dob in a tosser. If you see a litter bug tossing from a car you can note some key details and then lodge a complaint directly with your state authority. The person linked to the vehicle’s registration will receive an infringement notice. See more here.
Businesses and organisations can implement systems that discourage littering and encourage recycling and other desirable behaviour in their employees. This contributes to the overall organisational culture.
Do recycling schemes work?
It depends on the scheme and what outcomes are measured. If the majority of litter is beverage containers then a scheme that pays a person to return these containers is bound to see a reduction in litter. Does it stop someone from tossing that drink bottle out their window? I’d hope so. But a small return and an effort to get that return will not be enough of an incentive for some litter bugs. I think more people will get out and pick up litter though. The quicker litter is picked up the easier it is to recycle. Once the grass slasher has been through it makes it difficult to pick it up let alone recycle it.
Here is what I discovered today
- For every piece of litter I saw, there were 5-10 pieces that I did not see. These were buried in soil or covered by overgrown grass or plants.
- People do notice when you pick up litter and you will receive some words of encouragement.
- It can be an extremely rewarding task, but a little bit disheartening.
- It can feel overwhelming to look at the bag you have collected then look out to the road or area remaining.
- Every piece of litter removed reduces a hazard for a waterway, animal, child, parent pushing a pram, tourist, walker, jogger, pet, motorist…
- Every piece of litter removed helps to Keep Australia Beautiful.