The litter challenge

I would like to tell you about an article written recently in the Financial Times by columnist Michael Skapinker. What he said struck a loud chord with me and I hope that it will with you too.

It’s all about what you would do if you saw someone dropping litter. Michael Skapinker quotes Prince Charles, when asked what he would do if he saw someone littering, as saying : “the difficult thing is to ask them to pick it up without getting stabbed”.

Michael Skapinker then goes on to relate the heroic episode where Boris Johnson, on his bicycle, pursued a car from which a piece of litter had been thrown at his helmet. He caught up with the offending youths and confronted them.

Of course, the issue here is about changing litterers’ behaviour and preventing an area from declining. It has been amply shown that, as Skapinker puts it, when louts get away with dropping litter they realise they can get away with more and it could be a more serious offence next time. This then, Broken Windows-style, leads to people fearing for their safety and going out less often and results in the decline of the neighbourhood.

The key point is that Michael Skapinker goes on to suggest a way in which you can challenge litterbugs so that there is a chance of changing their behaviour but of not risking one’s personal security in doing so. His solution is to take a lead from the Grand Master of the litter world, Bill Bryson. Bill relates how he challenged a litter lout by saying : “this is a beautiful place – why don’t we keep it that way ?”, at which the teenager cleared up his mess.

But Michael Skapinker has cannily modified this approach so as to soften the confrontation and avoid the chance of a Mexican stand-off – or worse. Skapinker relates how he quoted the Bryson formula to a young litterer who had chucked his paper cup into the undergrowth but, on seeing that the youth “sat mute”, Skapinker “scrambled through the bushes, retrieved the cup and walked off with it”. This elicited a softly-spoken “sorry” from the youth.

I hope that this is a formula that we can all try. If you have tried it, please leave a comment on this blog to let us know the outcome and do also e-mail michael.skapinker@ft.com so that he can see evidence as to the effectiveness (or otherwise) of his suggestion.

Leave a Reply