Reactions to litter-picking

An interesting blog from the US came to my notice the other day. It is written by Mark Olmstead and is entitled “Top 10 Reactions to my Trashwhispering”. “Trashwhispering ?”, you ask. Quite – as far as I can make out, trashwhispering is US for “litter-picking”.

Anyway, Mark Olmstead walks his dog every morning in his Hollywood neighbourhood and picks up litter as he goes. And he has set out the top 10 reactions to his litter-collecting made by other people he meets on his litter-picking dog walk (or is it his dog-walking litter pick ?). How many of these chime with your experience ?

1. They just don’t see it
How often have you pointed out to your friends how littered an area is and they say that they haven’t noticed it before ? And then they come back a week or two later with a benignly ironic “thanks, mate – now I can’t stop noticing litter wherever I go and I feel I have to pick it up – you have ruined my life !”. Well, Mark Olmstead likens this to the story about the approach of Christopher Columbus’s three ships to America in 1492 – the native Americans didn’t even see the ships for several days because the ships corresponded to nothing they had ever seen before.

2. Who – me ?
This comment is made by the people who litter – they “look up, down, anywhere but at me”. Mark says that he knows they feel guilty but at least they have the grace not to litter in his presence.

3. Ignore him and he’ll go away
Do these people feel guilty when they see Mark litter-picking or do they just feel uncomfortable seeing a stranger doing something that they see as humiliating ? Either way, they stare past him so intently that he is sure it isn’t accidental

4. Where’s the orange vest ?
The assumption is that he is doing some kind of community service (or “Community Payback” as it’s now called over here). This clearly confuses people as “my regular clothes and the dog don’t quite fit in with a nudge from the judge”.

5. What kind of dog is that ?
This is often preceded by the question “can I ask you something ?” and, before Mark can embark on his usual spiel of how satisfying it is to clean up his neighbourhood every day, out comes the follow-up question about the breed of his dog. Mark thinks that these people aren’t sure that he is aware that he is picking up litter and want to alert him indirectly and discreetly. Or perhaps this is some kind of displacement reaction.

6. Is the council paying you ?
Mark was asked this by an 80-year-old man who clearly couldn’t imagine that anyone would choose to clear up after him and his polystyrene cups. What is more, Mark eventually caught him littering and was able to point out the error of his ways.

7. Do you use that to catch snakes ?
I suspect that we are unlikely to hear that reaction in this country but Mark was amused to encounter a rattlesnake a week after being asked this in a national park. What questions do you get asked about your litter-picking stick ?

8. I pick up litter too
Mark feels a bit cynical about this reaction : “I’m glad to hear it but it would sure be nice to actually see it with my own eyes”. I think that I would be inclined to question this sort of person in a bit more detail – you might even be able to team up with them (if they really mean what they say…….)

9. Thank you for doing that
Again, I feel that Mark’s reaction to this goes only half way. He says : “I am happy to report that I get this about twice a week. Every time it makes my day”. Fair enough, Mark, but how about asking such people if they would like to do some litter-picking too ?

10. You inspire me
Mark labels this as “By far the best reaction ever, from a nurse in theatre scrubs, heading to work. What three words could possibly be nicer to hear ?”. Well, I feel a bit mean suggesting that “can I help?” might be three words nicer to hear and I certainly don’t hold it against a dedicated public servant such as a nurse making such a comment.

So – thank you, Mark, for making us think about people’s reactions to seeing us litter-picking. You have, I think, opened up our minds to some moments of incredible potential. The challenge for us now is, I suggest, to give some thought to how we can turn such incidents into opportunities for changing people’s behaviour such that, instead of simply reacting to and commenting on our litter-picking activity, they come away from the encounter determined to do something themselves to address the issue of litter.

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