Why litter picking must be a social norm if civilisation is to be saved

Steve Jewett, founder of National Clean Up Day and Clean Trails, is a public policy advocate for a clean outdoors. He spoke to The Skylark about why, “if we want a civilisation that will last and endure”, both consumers and manufacturers must urgently tackle the litter crisis.

About 12 or 14 years ago [co-founder Bill Willoughby] and I would be hiking along the trails in San Diego and we’d see trash – cigarette butts, candy wrappers, water bottle caps – all along it. I’d pick it up and put what I could in my pockets and then call it a day. But then we started to make a game of it, spurring each other on. I delved into my kitchen supplies, found a pair of barbeque tongs and a bag. It wasn’t long before people started noticing what we were doing. Eventually we’d get the trail cleaned up, only for trash to reappear the next time we hiked.

Then we had an idea to attach a litter picking tool and reusable bags to the trash cans, a kind of litter station, at various points on the trail. We spent some years developing an organisation, which later became Clean Trails. And about two years later we came up with idea of having a National Clean Up Day. We were soon contacted by Earth Day who wanted to do a globalised organised clean up in 2020. This would become World Clean Up Day, which is now happening on 19 September 2020.   

Changing the social norms

What we’re really interested in is changing the social norms around litter dropping. There’s an area of science called community based social marketing and it can be applied to help understand why people litter and what it takes to get people to keep their community clean through social pressures. Right now, we know that somewhere in the range of 80-95% of people will pick up their own litter. These people are not going to intentionally litter (although cigarettes, of course, are a whole different ballgame). What we want to help change is push that percentage up to 95%, by impacting the number of people who pick litter up instinctively.

There are a couple of components involved in achieving this. The first is that you have to have the tools. So, National Clean Up Day is working on trying to get more of those tools out there in the places where it’s appropriate to put them.

It was never imagined that something like the improper disposal of 1, 2 or 5% of litter would create a global crisis that we are essentially facing right now.

The second part is having, of course, clean-ups done on a national and global basis but also at community level. There are thousands of communities across the world and if you’re involved in one or two you can help make it a social norm that if someone sees a piece of litter picked they’ll do the same. What we need to do is get clean up participation to roughly 5% of the global population. If locally, in most areas, we achieve this 5% level we’ll start to see a big difference.

Both the fault of the consumer and the manufacturer

From our point of view, littering is both the fault of the consumer and the manufacturer. Yes, the packaging design is dictated by the manufacturers but it’s also driven by consumer behaviour. We are seeing changes to the way products are packaged but the consumer also has to play a part in taking responsibility for the litter that occurs, because they did demand that product in some way.

What I don’t want to see though is greenwashing. This is not something that’s all down to the consumer, it’s not all their fault. This is a combination of an entire system. We came from a period, before the 1950s, where pretty much everything was biodegradable. But after the early 1950s the change in consumer behaviour allowed for the use of longer lasting substances that were inexpensive and easily disposable. And unfortunately, they’re so long lasting that I think it caught everybody by surprise. It was never imagined that something like the improper disposal of 1, 2 or 5% of litter would create a global crisis that we are essentially facing right now.

We want a civilisation that will last and endure

There’s an interesting piece of research that came out in early December 2019. A researcher did a survey of 100 varying sites around the North Pacific (near the coast, away from coast, in ocean garbage patches, at multiple depths).  All she did was use a glass jar and dipped it into each location at specified depths, sampled the water and counted every single piece of plastic. The results were astounding.

The amount of plastic by weight and by number went up from 10 pieces of microplastic per cubic metre to 8.3 million. What’s happened is we’ve created a system, not borne by the consumer and not by the manufacturer, it’s borne jointly. The only answer to this problem is to come up with joint solutions whereby the manufacturer concedes it must produce something that’s more sustainable and the consumer agrees to buy more responsibly.  We don’t want to look at 2100 and know that’s the end. We want a civilisation that will last and endure.

Reassess your consumer behaviour

What we urgently need to do is stop plastics and other manmade created pollutants going into the ocean. Yes, this is just one piece of the environmental puzzle, but the ocean is the basis for the air that we breathe and the food supply we eat. If we don’t stop pollution quickly, and the oxygen generated capacity of the ocean shuts down, we’re in real trouble.

But there are things we can do to change this. Buy better products. Buy products that are designed and packaged sustainably, with as minimal packaging as possible. Reassess your consumer behaviour. By expressing this new behaviour, you are signalling to the manufacturer what needs to be done.

The second thing is dispose of that trash, and specifically plastic, responsibly and put it in a trash can. If that’s overflowing don’t stuff it alongside it. Don’t allow any of your litter to be released into the environment. And when you see trash, pick it up. Get a pair of salad tongs and do something so that when you’re walking around you can pick it up efficiently without creating a health hazard.

And finally, participate in a clean-up. The more clean-ups there are – individually, communally, nationally, globally – the more automatic the behaviour will become. It’s a chain reaction and eventually we can clear up the planet if we all recognise that maintaining a healthy planet is down to each and every one of us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 8th June 2020

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