Have you seen a photo of me on social media this month picking up rubbish? Want to know why? Here is my story.
A growing pile of rubbish
It seems most sunny weekends or public holiday celebrations are quickly followed by the need for a community wide clean up. In the UK, images of waste left behind at popular events like Glastonbury music festival or London’s New Year celebrations, are becoming commonplace. Last week’s party for Premier Football champions Leicester City, required an estimated 40 tons of litter to be cleaned up.
More generally, a growing pile of rubbish is appearing in our parks, outside shopping malls, on the street, at the bus stop or down on the beach.
Seeing all this litter got me thinking. As society debates the growing health problems linked to our disposable, fast food lifestyle, is this pile of rubbish another consequence yet to be considered?
The rubbish invasion of my seaside home
I moved to the British seaside town of Brighton last year following years in 'the big smoke'. Rejuvenated by the sea air, I started walking shorelines, promenades, piers and coastal paths with zeal. The only problem was a big pile of rubbish everywhere I went.
A recent study estimates about 8 million tons of plastic enters our oceans every year. According to it’s author, Dr Jenna Jambeck, this equates to “about five plastic grocery bags full of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world”.
Previously, when I read about sea life dying, getting stuck in the plastic rings from a six pack of beer or swallowing a plastic bag, I failed to appreciate the magnitude of our problem. Even studies reporting ocean plastic entering our food chain failed to inspire action. Only now, walking around my new coastal home and seeing the mounting evidence first hand, did I start to truly comprehend just how big this growing pile of rubbish is.
My first bag of rubbish
A plastic bag swept past me one day as I walked along the shoreline of Brighton beach. I picked it up worried that it might otherwise end up in the sea. I took a few more steps and found another piece of rubbish. So I picked it up and put it in the bag. Within the 30 minutes it took to walk back to the promenade the plastic bag was full.
As I emptied the contents in a nearby bin I recalled a horrible news story out that same week. Earlier this year more than 30 sperm whales beached and died around the North Sea. While the underlying cause is debated, one possible reason was discovered when researchers found piles of rubbish inside some of the dead whales. These rubbish piles included a near 13m shrimp fishing net, a plastic car engine cover and the remains of a plastic bucket.
So I started to pick up rubbish
Awaken the eco-warrior within
The next time I was out walking I picked up a few pieces of rubbish. Next walk, I took a bag with me to collect more. A few days later my partner, Tim, bought me a surprise present. A litter picker, or ‘rubbish picker-upperer’ as I like to call it, from the local hardware shop. Armed with this modern day weapon I felt the inner eco-warrior awaken within me. Well, if it doesn’t start with me, who will it start with?
My public pledge
Following Gandhi’s words, I decided to “be the change that you wish to see in the world”.
Then, who knew? If I could inspire another to do the same, great. If a kid saw me and thought twice about dropping the next soft drink can, even better.
But isn’t it embarrassing?
I have to admit the first time I went out alone, without the support of Tim, I was quite self-conscious. Yet, the encouragement of strangers calling out “well done”, “that’s great”, “keep going”, has really spurred me on.
Support on social media is also inspiring. A challenge from a friend to mix up my poses led to photos of picking up rubbish with a glass of champagne, arty shots and even a ‘bin there and done that’ pun!
What’s even better is the positive impact a daily walk has on my health and wellbeing.
A global problem
The famous writer, Bill Bryson, feels littering is particularly bad in the UK. He argues Brits need to be ‘habituated’ to put their rubbish in the bin and calls for more government action alongside serious penalties, like in Singapore, to enforce a change in the British mind-set.
However, while evidence suggests the UK is one of the most littered countries in Europe, a quick scan of the internet suggests littering is a growing global problem. I’m also not alone in taking direct action.
A few of my favourite allies include:
- Alison Teal who makes videos cleaning up rubbish in the Maldives dressed in a plastic bottle bikini.
- Tommy Kleyn, who started picking up rubbish along his favourite river bank and now asks people to dedicate 30 minutes each day to collect a bag of trash.
- Let’s Do It Foundation preparing for their World Clean Up day in 2018.
- Wayne Dixon, and his gorgeous dog Koda, currently picking up rubbish as they walk the coast of Britain.
- And the amazing Ocean Clean Up project, initially kick-started by a teenager and is now building technology to systematically remove at least half of the world’s plastic from our sea.
So while rubbish may be more evident in certain locations, litter is clearly hitting the ground all over the world.
Who’s to blame?
Studies by Keep Britain Tidy demonstrate people become comfortable dropping litter if they see another piece of rubbish already on the ground. Another study, in conjunction with Coca-Cola, found people hold differing perceptions on what constitutes litter. For example, putting a cigarette down the drain or leaving an empty can on a bench rather than on the ground, is often not interpreted as littering. The same was reported for places where people expect someone will clean up afterwards, such as festivals, parks or on the train.
So, it’s clear our first challenge is to change mind-set.
Our second challenge is to manage the packaged, disposable, consumer world in which we live more effectively. Many people now don’t remember a time when apples came without a plastic wrapper or water wasn’t in a plastic bottle.
Last year the UK introduced a 5p plastic bag charge at all large retailers. Within 4 months supermarkets reported an 80% drop in plastic bag usage and the change is expected to save £60m in litter clean-up costs over the next 10 years. Evidence that habits can change when people are incentivised.
It also demonstrates how the big brands need to be part of the solution, especially considering their product constitutes most of the litter. Imagine the impact of a Coca-Cola advert where attractive young people put their empty bottles in the bin! Ian Bland, who campaigns on the issue, describes big brands as “undisputed heavyweight champions of the world in behaviour change”, and asks for 5% of their advertising budget to combat littering.
However, rather than accept joint responsibility, in the UK big business, including McDonald’s, chewing gum maker Wrigley, soft drinks companies and national pub chains, signed a Litter Manifesto last year asking the government to fund a meaningful plan to combat litter. The manifesto highlighted other social campaigns like Don’t Mess With Texas, where people actively report litter bugs, and substantial financial weight backs regular educational programs.
Business co-owning the solution is also critical in driving innovation and technology necessary to create social change.
Last week Saltwater Brewery in the US launched compostable, biodegradable and edible six pack rings with a specific intent to not only to save marine life but connect with their main beer drinking market made up of surfers and people who like to fish. Now, this type of product is a game changer. If combating litter becomes profitable everyone will want to do it!
Take direct action and follow me
Keen to get involved? Why not try the following?
- Make a start by joining me on Twitter or Facebook and post a photo picking up rubbish using the hashtag #1rubbishaday.
- Find your local Clean Up group and get involved. For example, the Keep Britain Tidy website is a great resource and even has an online shop where you can buy your own eco-warrior rubbish picker-upperer.
- Role model the habit by putting rubbish in the bin, especially in front of children.
- Buy products made by companies that either actively campaign against litter or create solutions to fight the problem. For example, try using a reusable cup next time you buy a take away coffee.
- Lobby your government to take action, including taxes, fines and education to change people’s mind-set.
About Natal Dank
I'm into the people side of business. Through Southern Blue Consulting I specialise in Agile HR, people performance and organisational development. I’m also passionate about saving our world and when I’m not picking up rubbish I drive an electric car called Colin!