I’ve seen other people (in England) talking about ‘getting back to normal’ and opening up in the past couple of weeks. For me though, I’ve only felt a teeny weeny bit of normality in the last couple of days with a couple of trips further afield. There suddenly seems to be more choice. We’ve had very few choices for such a long time and now we have more than stay home or meet one other or your bubble. A whole 6 people can meet up, and private garden meetups are back on the agenda, and pubs (some, with restrictions), and gyms, and hairdressers, and libraries, and non-essential shops. That’s a lot of choice. I like it.

We have had a lot of changes and very little choice over the past 12 months. For the most part, we’ve adapted well and stuck to the rules. Now we’re opening up again and guess what hasn’t changed? The amount of litter everywhere. I’m like a broken record on this one (please don’t search the archives for how often I’ve posted about litter) but honestly, we need to do so much better.

Alongside people outside pubs, and queues, the press coverage of the first few days of ‘opening up’ in England was full of images of litter in our lovely parks. Our lovely parks that have kept us sane during the last 12 months. Our beaches, full of waste – some of which will inevitably end up in the sea. And disposable masks are a new and most unwelcome addition. So pubs, queues and litter – those were the messages beamed around the world of England’s opening up. The shame.

There are so many issues when it comes to litter. Yes, we are a wasteful society – just google the stats on food waste to see how much we chuck away. There is too much packaging, on everything, tons of which is not recyclable. In some places there aren’t a lot of bins. But, but, but, none of these are excuses for littering.

If you carried a plastic cup around whist you drank your brew why is it suddenly too heavy to carry home? If you took a 6 pack of lager to the park to drink with your 5 mates why can’t you carry 6 empty cans home? Ditto your picnic stuff. I’m zero tolerance when it comes to litter.

We have to do better on litter. But how? What’s the answer?

I think we need to see some incentivised comps for innovative behaviour change pilots around the country. We can find the best then fund larger-scale interventions. We absolutely are an innovative country and we’ve proved we can pivot! It just seems to be that prioritising our litter problem, which is a national disgrace, is not high on the agenda. Again, I don’t know why.

There’s going to be massive pushes on UK based tourism in the next month or so (which, incidentally are not staycations – staycations are holidays in your own home, not your own country). I’d prioritise a holiday destination if it was promoted as litter-free, or low litter. It’s a differentiator.

Aside from incentivised comps we also need to:

  • be very clear about the damage litter causes, in very real terms, and in plain English.
  • be very clear about the cost of clearing litter, and larger-scale flytipping, and demonstrate in £s what that could have been spent on.
  • stop focussing solely on litter picks.

We absolutely can change heavily entrenched behaviour – the last 12 months have proven that. There will be a lot of research papers published around what worked in terms of pandemic messaging and comms and what didn’t and I look forward to reading them. This one from LSE suggests that harsh pandemic messaging led to good intentions, but crucially not actual behavioural change. “A new study from the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science found that such orders may, in fact, increase compliance intentions, but without any significant effect on behaviour.” Though “Policy makers do not always have to be afraid of using harsh language when communicating with the public” says Professor Paul Dolan. We can, and probably should stop pussyfooting around with litter messaging.

I sincerely hope I’m not going to be posting about this issue for life. I do feel strongly about it and I absolutely know there will be multiple effective solutions out there that just haven’t been tapped into yet. Can you imagine having a picnic in a nice clean litter-free park with 5 of your friends? I can. I’d love it. We can make this happen. Are you with me? Do you have any ideas on how to tackle the national shame of our litter problem?