After endless months of limitations, lockdown has been (and continues to be) very slowly eased. With this comes more freedom and more choices – more open spaces re-opening, children’s play parks being un-padlocked (truly one of the saddest sights for me has been padlocked swings) more food outlets opening, the distances we’re allowed to travel becoming greater – so yay! But no, the overwhelming story at the easing of lockdown has been litter and litterpricks. What an utter disgrace.

We’ve always had a litter problem in this country and sadly we probably always will, but in amongst the usual takeaway gubbins are now disposable masks and gloves (even more of a health and long term environmental hazard than the other stuff). We’ve come back as even worse litterers than before, which I didn’t think was even possible.

I’m dragged to litter every day by my dog – she’s only little but she’s a puller when she’s on a mission. She can sniff out a discarded tray of chips or half a kebab from a vast distance and I need to be on my toes to make sure she doesn’t hoover up a full buffet on a walk. Side issue, but of note – she will attempt to eat anything and everything barring McDonald’s chicken nuggets – what on earth is in them? My point though is that I see litter. I really see it and it disgusts me.

As I’ve said already there’s a ton of coverage about the amount of littering country-wide – the beach clean-ups, the parks, the human poo in a KFC box (JUST WHAT THE!?*), and the angry elected officials expressing their disgust at the behaviour. What’s lacking, in my opinion, is any commentary on what we can do to change the behaviour. Without this, it’s just a collective moan in no?

Do a quick google about litter and what it will (probably) throw up is stuff about litter picks and local litter champions and maybe joining in a local litter picking group as well as pictures of people in high viz with grab sticks and black bags. We are very, very good at telling people that someone will always be willing to pick your crap up. This is so wrong! I applaud the people who go out making areas nice, but, but, but, it’s totally the wrong message if we ever to want to reduce the littering in the first place. You’re asking people to make a mental connection between ‘oh this park is pretty and clean so therefore I won’t drop any rubbish’. It’s quite the leap for occasional and serial offenders no? And it assumes common sense, which again, the pandemic has highlighted we don’t all possess.

If we’ve learned anything from the massive compliance to lockdown (for the first few weeks at least) is that people do respond very well to explicit instructions. People (some people, some of the time) need to be told what to do and what not to do.

We need to stop throwing resources at litter picking campaigns (earlier blog on this) and start telling people to just not drop litter in the first place.

I’m firmly in the ‘now is the opportunity for change camp’ (as a general pandemic response). We have a massive opportunity to look at things differently, to think about things differently and do things differently. Mixed messaging has been a central theme of the pandemic – are we alert? or home? or home and alert? or alert to staying home? Mixed messaging gets mixed results. Clear messaging is the only way to achieve change.

An important tenet of behaviour change is that it is much easier to substitute a similar behaviour than to eliminate an entrenched one. Applying that tenet you’d encourage people to use the bin instead of the floor, so you’d need to provide enough bins for people to use and the messaging would be around using the bin and not the floor. For others it would be around taking your rubbish home – you brought it so you can take it home. I’ve been in parks where the only sign has been a poster about an upcoming litterpick. This really is sending out the message that someone will pick up after you.

Pledge to pick up? No, pledge not to drop it.

I stand by what I’ve said before – clever communications and changing behaviours through subtle wording is what comms professionals do. Small changes can make a massive difference. We’ll never stop tossers being tossers but we can reduce it massively by telling the tossers what to do in clear language.