Education is more critical than enforcement in the war on litter

A mountain of trash in St Martin's Terrace, Canterbury

We need to teach people to love the place they live, says academic and cleaner Canterbury campaigner Prof Rick Norman

Carrots or sticks? It’s a dilemma for any campaign aimed at changing people’s behaviour. Is it better to encourage good behaviour or to punish bad behaviour?

The answer is usually a bit of both, but getting the balance right can be difficult.

Canterbury City Council has just launched a new litter awareness campaign. Its slogan is “Love Where We Live”, and it went live on Valentine’s Day.

But the story on the council’s website led with “Enforcement officers have issued almost 600 fixed penalty fines for littering, fly-posting and graffiti in the last three months”.

Prof Rick Norman

I thought that a pity. If people are motivated mainly by a desire not to get caught, they’ll simply make sure no one is looking when they drop litter.

Better, surely, to change attitudes at a deeper level, educating people to appreciate and care for their environment, and starting with the education of the young.

But will it work? Why are some people apparently so unconcerned about making the place look a tip? Why do they do it? That question is regularly asked, often with incredulity, in the Facebook group Canterbury Grot-spots.

A classic example is the report of a family leaving a picnic place, carefully opening the car window, and throwing out the discarded wrappings of their picnic before driving off.

Presumably they thought it was a nice place to have a picnic. Presumably it’s a place they might want to come back to. So why do they deliberately make it less attractive?

Why do people not love where they live? They may have good reason not to. They may live in a run-down area, neglected and starved of public funding, scarred by the effects of poverty, low wages and unemployment.

It may be that the most authentic statement they can make about their world is a two-finger gesture of defiance to the rest of society.

Litter in the St Martin’s area of Canterbury

In that case the slogan “Love Where We Live” may be doomed to failure. It may be as self-defeating as the pleas of the jilted lover constantly demanding of his beloved “But why don’t you love me?”

I hope not. I would like to think that there are some people at least who, if they were to stop and think, would be less likely to toss away their used cans and bottles and plastic wrappings. So the more we can encourage people to stop and think, the better.

The more we can encourage people to be more aware of their environment and of what they are doing to it, the better. Spread the love – it’s worth a try.

Rick Norman was professor of moral philosophy at the University of Kent. Now retired, he is chairman of St Michael’s Road Area Residents’ Association and is active in various local campaigns.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here