Nagging litter-bugs isn’t the answer

Assume good behaviour and the bad can be eradicated

It is not difficult to find symptoms in everyday life of our low self-esteem as a nation. Binge-drinking is one, casual violence another. But the most obvious and universal sign of Britain’s dislike for itself is before our eyes on pavements, by the side of roads, on public transport, down country lanes. Litter is the nation’s favourite form of self-harm.

There are worse social crimes than dropping a can in the gutter or chucking a cigarette packet out of a car window but littering matters as much for what it represents as for the ugliness it causes. It is the easy, careless expression of a lack of concern for others, a blindness to the world around you, and an idle over-dependence on a nannying local authority.

Down the decades, dropping litter seems to have lost any kind of stigma – indeed, it has almost become an expression of freedom for many people. It is now so ubiquitous that it would be absurd to blame any particular group. It transcends age or class.

Keeping pace with this decline in private responsibility, there has been a massive failure of public policy. According to a report published this week by the think-tank Policy Exchange, the volume of trash thrown away on streets and lanes has increased by 500 per cent since the 1960s. It costs local councils around £500m a year to clean up. Some 1.3m items of litter are thrown out of cars every day.

The traditional approach – middle-class hand-wringing, whiney references to “litter louts” and “litterbugs”, feeble and empty threats of prosecution – has not only failed but has perversely lifted the small element of shame that once adhered to leaving litter.

If you characterise people as louts, they tend to behave like them. The tut-tutting approach towards what Bill Bryson, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, calls “the squalid behaviour of an inconsiderate minority” actually normalises that behaviour. After all, if litter is a universal problem, it hardly makes much difference if another sweet packet is dropped.

Bigger fines are not the answer, nor are scolding advertising campaigns. The experience of cleaner, happier countries – notably, Australia – is that the best approach is one which would horrify the hardliners. A positive message is more effective than a negative one. Give people a sense that they can make a difference by doing the right thing – making good behaviour the assumed norm – and soon all but the truly lost and dislocated will begin to think twice about casual acts of anti-social behaviour.

It may sound absurdly Pollyanna-ish but I suspect that those in the advertising industry would agree. Complimenting and including the consumer works better than nagging. If this simple but subtle message is accompanied by practical action by local authorities – rewarding those who return cans and bottles, offering more bins, convincing binmen not to scatter rubbish as they collect it, educating children about litter – a different mindset will soon take hold.

It matters. A child dropping fast food packaging is learning habits of selfishness and thoughtless dependence on the state that will soon extend into other areas. It is time for less fecklessness in government, more imaginative action. With a significant reduction in litter, our mostly beautiful country will be a more pleasant place to live, the environment will be improved, and public money will be saved. We might even be slightly happier.