Clean up your New Year…


Why litter-picking isn’t just about the rubbish

Litter-picking. Organised or individual, regular or one-off., there’s a lot of it about: has 1280 litter-picking groups registered to-date, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Why do we do it? You might think the answer is blindingly obvious, but it’s worth thinking about a little more carefully.

What’s in it for me?

Litter-picking is of course ostensibly about cleaning up our neighbourhoods, both in the short and the longer term, based on the idea that clean streets and footpaths are less likely to attract further litter.

This aspect has been given a boost recently with the focus on marine plastics. Initiatives such as #2minutebeachclean have a conscious aim of building the social media profile of litter-picking, and making littering increasingly social unacceptable.

Then there are the physical advantages to the pickers of being out in the fresh air, getting some exercise. New-in from Scandinavia is plogging – a combination of litter-picking and jogging which has to be the most guilt-free activity available.

There’s something about the very concrete, direct-action appeal of litter-picking, with a low barrier to entry, and a clear and immediate impact, that is strangely attractive in the age of online petitions. Environmental issues are on such a scale that there is a danger for individuals of feeling helpless, and that their contribution will make no difference. Litter-picking, especially if it includes recycling, can help people feel they have agency in the face of global problems. The value here is less about the actual effect you have and more about that sense of empowerment. That might be the encouragement you need to take other, more wide-ranging action.

 Building communities through rubbish

Much litter-picking is a collective effort, and this is where its value becomes more wide-ranging. Picking up litter signals that communities care about their neighbourhood, and are prepared to take action to improve it. Brownie packs the country over are schooled in the principles of good citizenship through donning hi-vis and setting out from the Guide Hut armed with those nifty picky-uppy things. It’s a surprisingly competitive business: scuffles have been known to break out over who gets the choicest rusty beer cans, and a traffic cone can cause a near-riot.

A litter-picking event is a simple but very effective way of bringing people together. The community builders working as part of the Wellbeing Exeter community development programme are open about how litter picks, often combined with some tea and cake or tree-planting, are great ways to help build local relationships, and can be useful catalysts for more ambitious plans. Doing something practical together can also spark creativity: after one litter pick in Exeter, residents decided they’d like the rubbish they’d collected from a local park to be returned to the site in the form of a sculpture, to mark their growing pride in this green space. The most recent litter pick in that area (and there is less litter every time) was abuzz with the idea of a local astronomer offering to hold a star-gazing event.

Since litter-picking is inevitably a very visible form of community action, it is usefully infectious. Community builders report that bystanders will often join in along the way, or will find other ways to contribute: a recent project focusing on cleaning up an underused alleyway behind some houses started as litter-pick but morphed into a community gardening exercise when someone contributed some bulbs. There’ll always be the odd passer-by with their ‘that’s the council’s job’ comments, but our experience suggests this is a minority view, and that communities are keen to take responsibility for making their neighbourhood a better place to live.

The Wellbeing Exeter community builders are not alone: CleanupUK explicitly states the community-building aspect of its mission, with a focus on deprived areas.

Keeping it local

Let’s be honest, there is a heavy element of sticking plaster on constantly suppurating wound here. Most committed litter pickers will have asked themselves whether it really makes sense to go on picking up after the equally committed litter louts (they’re known as tossers in Australia, which I’ve always rather liked). Some might consider a more robust government line on reducing packaging might have had more prominence in the 2017 Litter Strategy.

The misjudged promotion of Keep Britain Tidy’s Clean for the Queen campaign in 2016, to coincide with the Queen’s 90th birthday, which saw Michael Gove and Boris Johnson (deliciously described in a comment on the Guardian website as ‘Dickensian grotesques’) sporting ill-fitting purple t-shirts and exhorting us to litter-pick for Her Majesty, was enough to make the most tidy-minded of us fling our chocolate wrappers on the ground. Despite its laudable aims, the advertising of this initiative, with its catastrophic casting errors and patronising tone, missed the crucial point. Litter picking works best at a local level, through local energy and effort (albeit shared and celebrated more widely), not through centralised instruction. No-one likes a bossy-boots.

But the national picture aside, if we think of litter-picking as community-building with black sacks it’s clear that there is plenty to celebrate. Bring on the hi-vis!

Nicola Frost – Knowledge Guru