I live in a suburb called Glen Eden. Generally speaking, it’s a lovely place to call home. Surrounded by trees, with the gorgeous Waitakere Ranges just to the west, nice local parks and plenty of native birdlife.
However, sadly, it wasn’t exuding particularly eden-like qualities today.
Three days a week, I bike (or sometimes walk) with my three-year old daughter to kindy. It’s a neat little trip with a handy shortcut and not much time spent on the roads. We ride down the hill, throw “peanut butter sandwiches” to the “trolls” as we cross the little bridge with stream meandering underneath and make our way up past the local park to the stream-side pathway that leads to Savana’s kindergarten.
And every time we make the trip, we see rubbish.
Drink cans, pie packets, cigarette cartons and ice cream wrappers…all just casually discarded by seemingly thoughtless individuals. It’s a habit I find infuriating and baffling. I am genuinely mystified as to what goes through the brain of someone who decides that the best thing to do with their chip packet when they’ve finished scoffing the contents is to chuck it on the ground. I’m certain they must be aware of the existence of bins, they can probably see that the rubbish clogs up the drains after rainfall and, even if they’re not familiar with the “Do the Right Thing” jingle that was on the telly in the early 90’s, surely they must agree that rubbish strewn about the place isn’t a great look?
But still, some folks, as they travel from A to B, somehow justify leaving behind a visible wake of waste. If anyone can explain the psychology behind this decision-making, I’d really like to hear your thoughts.
Up until now, I didn’t make a habit of picking up other people’s litter. Occasionally, yes, if a bin was nearby or if I saw someone drop something, I would return it to them with a cheeky “I think you dropped this”, but my general feeling was ‘Why pick up that lolly wrapper? People will just think that someone will clean up after them’. It all felt a bit like ‘ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff’ pointlessness. But then, a few days ago, I saw an article that asks, “The question is, can you fix stupid?”
The article quotes former director of the U.S. National Park Service, Bill Mott saying that, contrary to public opinion, you can fix stupid.
“When I was director of the National Park Service, I sent out a memo to every park employee in the country that they pick up at least one piece of litter every day,” Bill said. “At the entrance stations, I told greeters to mention it to every person entering the park, to ask that each person pick up at least one piece of trash every day, too.
People would see rangers and visitors picking up even the smallest piece of litter, and it became contagious. Next thing you know, the littering, was greatly reduced. The next few years were the cleanest our parks have ever been.”
It’s known as the Broken Windows theory. Essentially, when a broken window is left unrepaired, it sends a message to the community that nobody cares for that area. This often leads to more broken windows, grafitti and other petty crime. And, of course, the reverse applies. If people see that an area is well cared for, they’re more likely to show respect for that environment.
So, I decided that the next time my daughter and I went for a walk, I would go armed with a rubber glove and bag.
I told Savana to put on her ‘rubbish goggles’. And while she zoomed along the sidewalk on her scooter, I dawdled behind her on my anti-litter mission. It’s 700 metres (about 8 minutes) to our nearest major park. By the time we got to the playground, my bag was overflowing with trash.
After a few fun rounds of playground tag and some scooter practise, we headed back to the homestead. My first words to my husband when walking through the door? “I’m going to need a bigger bag”.
I then proceeded to empty out the trash all over our sunroom floor to make some further investigations.
Sorting through the contents, I felt like a suburban anthropologist. The collection revealed an interesting snapshot of our local community. There were the usual chip packets, ice cream wrappers, straws, lollipop sticks and McDonalds detritus…but I also discovered a condom wrapper, a pregnancy test (a great match, I thought), an unused fart bomb, a flyer from a local Christian school and, ironically enough, an unopened cleaning tissue.
One thing that was very noticeable was that the majority of food/drink packaging was for unhealthy food. That, combined with the number of cigarettes found, makes me think that, perhaps, the level of respect that you show your body is reflected in how you treat your environment.
The upside of my litter-collecting mission was the feeling of satisfaction of leaving my neighbourhood looking a little more respectable (oh, and finding $5!). The downside was the punishment handed out to my knees with the near-constant squatting down to pick up items (I might have to borrow my dad’s nifty claw picker-upper gadget for next time).
All up, we rescued 156 pieces of rubbish on our 700 metre walk. Of those 156 items, 97 (62%) were recyclable (65 soft plastic, 26 paper/cardboard, 5 aluminium and 1 hard plastic).
And I think it was Savana who had the most insightful thoughts of the day as we went about our litter collecting duties…
Me: Why do you think people leave their rubbish here?
Savana: I’m thinking it’s because they’ve finished with it.
Me: Why do you think they don’t put it in the bin?
Savana: …(pauses)…I’m thinking it’s because they’re silly.
Despite the silly actions of a few litterbugs, rubbish collecting is now my new habit when I go out for a walk. I’m determined to bring the eden back to Glen Eden.