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We are all accountable for our actions

A blog post by Laura Watson

'There’s a responsibility in being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air would be.’’

- John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Recently I read an article in which the writer, a litter picker, stated that those who litter should not be blamed for their actions and encouraged others to think the same way. The article highlighted a study which found that ‘on an individual level, littering is a kind of revenge on society’. It compares littering to a ‘litmus test’ of how people are feeling.

Now, I have always believed that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I believe in freedom of speech. But I also believe that we need to consider the power of our words and, more specifically, the effect they have both on individuals and communities.

As someone who campaigns for a better environment, litter picks and supports individuals and communities to do the same, the article felt like a physical slap in the face to me and the 30,000+ people who volunteered their time to pick up litter as part of our recent Spring Clean Scotland campaign.

If I step back, I believe the article was supposed to highlight that our economic model plays a larger part in the failings of our ability to cope with the waste we produce than people do. While it is a valid point that we certainly do produce far too much single-use rubbish and that for decades manufacturers have been allowed to add ‘fuel to the fire’ with little to no incentivisation to produce less. None of this takes away from one simple fact: when push comes to shove, we all make choices that impact ourselves, the people around us and the environment we live in, and we are all accountable for those choices and outcomes.

Bags of litter collected at a Spring Clean Scotland litter pick

To be clear, producers can and should do more to help address how their marketing drives our insatiable appetite for stuff and the resultant impact their products have on communities when they are littered.  But, that doesn’t absolve us all of our personal responsibilities, in the same way we call out big business we need to call out our family, friends and neighbours.

If we were to blink and suddenly the planned Deposit Return System was in place, single-use plastics were replaced with more environmentally friendly options or banned outright, and reduce, reuse, recycle was embedded in the policy of every local authority and business, do you think we would still have a litter problem? Okay… yes, all of this would help, and we want these things because they are part of the solution. However, we still have one problem. The human problem. We can put policy in place, have deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility requirements and remove our dependency on plastic but I guarantee we would still have litter. Maybe different types and levels, but I assure you, it would still be there.

The article stimulated a response in some of its readers as it failed to recognise one simple truth and in fact disputes it. People who litter are responsible for their actions. No one else. The decision to drop litter, whatever one’s circumstances, is a personal choice; littering is not confined to those who are hard-up or are in an area with a lack of waste infrastructure. The common characteristic of wilful litterers is selfishness. Roadside litter is not a result of no bins on laybys. Roadside litter is the result of people choosing to prioritise the cleanliness of their own vehicle over the space shared by others. Dog fouling is the result of people valuing the greenspaces and streets they share less than their own garden or home. Littering is the selfish beliefs that ‘I pay taxes’, ‘I am keeping someone in a job’ and ‘it’s already littered so adding is no big thing’ are all acceptable reasons that excuse those that litter from being accountable for their actions. Well in the words used by a colleague – poppycock!

To excuse a behaviour, no matter the behaviour as being the result of someone taking their pain or suffering out on someone or something else, is both dangerous and, in the case of this article, offensive to litter pickers. No one needs to provide another reason to either make the behaviour acceptable or to provide another excuse for the state of our country. We get enough finger pointing and excuses regarding litter from all sides without providing more. Ultimately, no one should be providing a stage for litterers to stand on so people can feel sorry for them. They made a choice and when you consider that choice and the outcomes from it – can anyone raise their hand and say they feel sorry for those that litter because the person felt “alienated, disconnected and excluded”? Well, if you think yes, then perhaps you are a better person than me.

We all have a choice: #BinYourLitter or #TakeItHome.

“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you're going to be part of the problem”.

- Elridge Cleaver

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