By Deborah Wroe
I’m not a massive fan of litter picks. It can have the opposite effect to what you are trying to achieve by sending out the message ‘feel free to keep dropping litter and we’ll keep picking up after you’. “
This is in direct response to UK clean up day, which takes place on 13 September. It is the first UK national clean up day and the website says, “Let’s do it! began in Estonia in 2008 when a few people decided to do something about the problem of litter in their forests. They called on their country to help them clean up Estonia, and on this day 50,000 people came together to collect 10,000 tonnes of waste! Estonia quickly became litter-free – the problem didn’t come back – and today, Let’s do it! actions have taken place in over 100 countries around the world – creating a global network of anti-waste movements that has united 10,000,000 volunteers. Join us on 13th Sept 2014 as we work together toward a cleaner and healthier world.”
Litter would go in my Room 101. I loathe it and it makes me angry. I was raised at the height of Keep Britain Tidy public service films and ads, and on the back of chewing gum. If there are no bins you put the rubbish in your pocket and take it home, right? Clearly, not everyone thinks like this, and litter is a problem for us all. It’s our tax money that goes on cleaning up after the few, and in times of massive cuts to local authority funding is this really the best use of public money?
But how to tackle communicating the message that litter is bad and how to speak to the few that DO litter? I have just completed a social psychology course, which was fascinating on many levels, but one aspect really stuck out for me was the work of Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing. Talking about recycling messages in his paper ‘Crafting normative messages to protect the environment’ he said: “Public service communicators should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread.” Translated from social psychology speak into language we all get, this means, don’t tell your audience that loads of people do something bad if you want them to stop doing that bad thing, i.e. there is so much rubbish around that we are going to pick it all up for you in the hope that you won’t drop it again. How is that message reaching the people that litter? Are they likely to be the ones helping on national clean up or local litter picks? Highly likely not to be, but they will benefit from the hard work of others.
That said, there are also studies that show people are less likely to drop rubbish in a clean area than they are in a littered one. So the act of clean ups is good thing, but the message needs crafting carefully to achieve the desired effect.
In Sweden, McDonald’s have targeted young peoples’ recycling habits with a can currency campaign – cans for burgers. Interactive billboards around Stockholm conceal plastic bag dispensers for collecting cans. Ten cans earns one hamburger or cheeseburger, and 40 gets a Big Mac. It reminds me of taking bottles back for cash in Spain in years gone by, minus the interactive billboard bit. (Or taking our bottle of Ben Shaws Cherryade back to the corner shop for 10p back in the day). But where are the cans coming from? Will the young people be collecting litter to cash in for a burger?
Which brings me on to an add-on to UK clean up day. As part of the clean up day, volunteers will be asked to complete a survey listing the brands they find. “We’ll be using the clean ups to carry out what we hope will be the largest UK study on branded litter”.
The results of this will make interesting reading and we wonder how the brands that are found littering our streets and public spaces will respond?