Let me open by using a wise quote I found on Pinterest: “When you throw it away, think, there is no A-way.”
This often stays with me as I walk through the streets of our beautiful City of Bridgetown, where you don’t have to go far before seeing one stray plastic bag after another billowing and unfurling itself, as aimlessly and gracefully as the breeze it straddles, its freedom only to be clipped by the breadth and depth of our seas.
As I walk, I wonder how many other pedestrians contemplate this playful act between man’s thoughtless behaviour and nature. Or how indeed many of these orphan plastics end up in the sea. Or maybe it doesn’t matter because trash is always someone else’s problem – the Government, the SSA, the cleaners. But that’s just the problem. There is no one else, there is just us. Our little island is the perfect example of a fishbowl, making poor waste management not only an eyesore but perilous to us in ways beyond our imagination! No mention of the south coast necessary here.
One South African journalist warns in, “littering in South Africa is the expression of wider selfish and costly culture”, that we should pay attention to how we litter as it is reflective of a certain brand of degradation in a society and loss of community spirit. When one person litters it becomes an act of public concern, in terms of the cost of human labour to collect the stray trash, to public health in terms of causing disease, and not to mention a nuisance to the public’s enjoyment of the area.
Just as tourism is everyone’s business, so is littering. We are at a critical point in our history to turn things around so as not to live in what Kenneth Galbraith’s book calls “private affluence and public squalor”. As our culture becomes more of a takeaway culture, we should also guard against becoming a throwaway one, where we just throw trash anywhere when a garbage bin is not available or full.
In many ways, the problem with littering signals a critical breakdown in a society. It speaks to a larger disinterest on both sides of having a stake in the public’s well-being. Both the society and governance play an interdependent role, whose fracture can initiate a vicious loop of disengagement. For example, signs that tell people to stop littering only work if the area is kept clean, thereby establishing a norm for an expected behaviour at the interface between collection and disposal. It is a well-documented fact that persons are more likely to litter in areas that are full of litter. Therefore, the “don’t litter” sign always acts to only reinforce positive behaviour (i.e. not littering).
Not only do signs help but also the frequency with which an area is kept clean and litter-free. As human beings we are subject to countless non-verbal cues in our environment, and if efforts are being made to keep an area clean, persons will think twice about littering.
This draws on the “broken windows” theory which states that if a neighbourhood is not cleaned regularly, and broken things such as windows are not repaired fast enough, the neighbourhood will get trapped in a negative spiral of pollution, vandalism and criminal behaviour. Therefore, when an environment agrees with its own norm/expectation of a certain type of behaviour, it acts to maintain and serve its own standards of behaviour.
Looking at littering more broadly, we must also be wary of the impact it has on our children, their quality of life and access to clean healthy environments in which they will grow up and live. Do we really want our children to grow in urban sprawls filled with filth, unable to have the freedom to engage with the natural beauty our island has to offer, that which many pay thousands of dollars to enjoy? If you haven’t already observed, more and more of our children are being kept indoors than previous generations. There are already too many communities where children are like shut-ins and being babysat by screens. This is a worrying global trend say Gill and Malone (2007), researchers who spell out that we short-change these children of learning environmental literacy, risk assessment skills and resilience. They add that if we don’t find ways for our children to reconnect with nature then it will become difficult for them to develop the necessary skills to live on the planet sustainably, especially if they are to face the burgeoning environmental challenges that we are creating.
There is no doubt that littering is its own reward. For those who choose not to heed the call for a cleaner environment, we will all perish, for where there is litter there is filth and where there is filth there is disease. We have learned that the untidiness and disorder that it cues, will only bring more disorder, more delinquent behaviour and possibly more crime, according to the broken windows theory. It is not just trash we are talking here, but a lifestyle which will never be sustainable or beneficial for all of Barbados.
Clinical Mental Health Counsellor & Expressive Arts therapist