Sunday, January 10, 2016

The sociology of litter

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 8.)
Like my fellow Dominion Post columnist Dave Armstrong five days ago, I’ve been muttering lately about the amount of rubbish littering streets and other public places.
But while not wanting to boast, I’ve gone one step further than Dave. I’ve kept a record of the litter I’ve picked up on my regular walks into town.

Here are some examples, gathered over a period of several weeks:
One Woodstock Bourbon and Coke can; one Lion Red beer can; one Holiday cigarette packet; one McDonald’s Chicken McBites container; one NZ Pure lager bottle; one McDonald’s paper bag; one Becks beer bottle; one Subway wrapper; one chicken and chips container from the local Pak ’n’ Save; one KFC paper bag; one McDonald’s fries carton; one meat pie bag; one DB Double Brown carton; one Z Express cardboard coffee cup; one DB 33 Export beer can; and one plastic bag, brand name illegible, which appeared to have contained chocolate confectionery.

Some of this rubbish, no doubt, is discarded almost unconsciously, like the plastic sandwich packaging I recently picked up in  the middle of town. The effort required to put it in the nearest rubbish bin, just three paces away, was clearly too great for whoever devoured the contents.
But if that act could be attributed to mere laziness or thoughtlessness, the behaviour of some litterers suggests a perverse element of wilfulness.

Driving across the Remutaka Pass (we might as well start getting used to the new and historically correct name now) a few weeks ago, I saw an almost full bag of chips jettisoned from a vehicle in front of me.
This could be hardly be blamed on mere indolence or absent-mindedness, since it requires a conscious act to wind down the window and throw a parcel of chips onto the road.

Only days later, my wife and I watched as a McDonald’s paper bag – still apparently containing food, judging by its obvious weight – was thrown out the passenger-side window of a boy racer-type car travelling through town. Unfortunately I didn’t have my Uzi submachine-gun with me at the time.
All these observations have led me to build up a profile of the typical litterer.

Their most blindingly obvious characteristic is that they have no taste. No surprises there: people who drink Lion Red or eat Chicken McBites are unlikely to be sensitive to aesthetic concerns about the urban environment.
They are also likely to be obese. That goes without saying, judging by the evidence of their eating habits.

Their liquor of choice is likely to be some ghastly RTD or equally undrinkable industrial-grade beer. I have yet to find an Ata Rangi pinot noir bottle lying in a gutter.
Oh, and they probably smoke. That’s evident from the piles of cigarette butts you occasionally see in gutters and supermarket carparks, from car ashtrays that the owners were too lazy to empty into a bag at home.

Now to some questions. First, does it matter that some people spread their offensive detritus across the landscape?
Yes, because it affects our quality of life in subtle and insidious ways. Like the loathsome habit of tagging, it has a negative effect on community morale and municipal pride.

Neighbourhoods that are strewn with litter give the impression of being uncared for. This can have a multiplier effect: the more neglected things look, the less incentive there is for people to take pride in their surroundings.
The writer Bill Bryson puts it this way: “I see litter as part of a long continuum of anti-social behaviour. One end of it is this minor thing like litter and small bits of graffiti, and the other end is kicking somebody’s head in.”

There’s an environmental cost, too. Those cigarette butts, for example, end up being washed into the stormwater system and polluting waterways.
The next, and more important, question is: what can we do?

On a personal level, zero tolerance is not a bad place to start.
I recently heard a radio host recall that as a boy, he threw something out of the car window while travelling with his grandfather. Granddad immediately pulled up and ordered him to walk back and pick it up. It was a lesson he never forgot.

At national policy level, Singapore has the right idea. In 2014, its National Environment Agency issued 19,000 tickets for littering.  
The maximum fine is now $S2000 for a first conviction and $S10,000 for a third. Offenders can also be sentenced to clean up public areas for up to 12 hours.

Way to go, Singapore. How sad that we're far too timid to take a similarly tough line here.

1 comment:

Vaughan said...

And while the authorities are legislating to increase penalties for littering, can they also please reinstate big fines for obscene language? That pollutes the aural environment.

I chastely curse the day when as a hippie I swore as a means of expressing my freedom from boring conservative restraints. Like our rebellious habit of smoking funny cigarettes, it caught on and is now a plague.