Fine for teenagers ?

It’s well proven that young people undergo an uneven journey littering-wise as they advance through the years. Primary school children love litter-picking and recycling and love learning about environmental issues. But when teenage years loom, a transformation takes place in many young people’s attitudes to litter. No longer is it cool to put your litter in the bin – in fact research shows that young people litter more when they are in groups, a very clear example of negative peer pressure. The sad thing is that, following such constructive primary school years litter-wise, the teenage years of littering result in the 18-24 age group being identified as the worst litterers of all.

So this would seem to indicate that the more effort we can put into trying to find ways of teenagers retaining the positive litter lessons of their early years, the better. When I talk to them, I always challenge young people to come up with some suggestions of how we can make it cool to put your litter in the bin. I am still waiting for the killer solution but maybe it’s a question (as so many things are) of lots of little solutions and ideas which, combined, will come together to make a big difference.

One recent innovation is litter bins that talk, with the voices of well-known people responding to the act of someone putting litter into the bin. This “nudge” will no doubt be effective as a carrot in encouraging people, young and old, to put litter into a bin.

“The carrot’s fine – but what about the stick ?”, I hear you ask. Well, up in Lanarkshire they have been trialling an interesting concept – that of handing out fines to teenagers who litter. This is a bold move as it is more complex to fine under 16-year-olds than it is to fine older people (and, in case you wonder, it is indeed legal to impose a fine on any child over the age of 10).

South Lanarkshire Council thought about their approach carefully. Secondary school teachers warned the young people and their parents that council enforcement officers would be on the look-out. Apparently, although no fines were handed out during the trial, 168 warnings were given (all of which resulted in the offender picking up the litter they had dropped) and, in most places, a noticeable reduction in litter was achieved.

Objectors to this scheme voiced concerns mainly about it being a revenue-raising exercise, being vulnerable to over-zealous enforcement officers and not addressing the root cause of the problem. In fact a case in Glasgow 3 years ago, where an autistic schoolboy was fined £50 for dropping a bag of chips when a seagull swooped down to attack him exemplifies the need to ensure that enforcement officers are well trained.

And Margaret Mitchell MSP wondered if a couple of hours of cleaning up would be a better penalty for a teenager than a fine.

Whatever your view on whether it is right or not to fine teenagers for littering, I think we should take heart that some local authorities are being thoughtful and creative about how to tackle this challenging age group. Watch this space for further innovative ideas.

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