Claudia Hirtenfelder
Claudia Hirtenfelder

Litter, a social ill with big implications

I cannot count the amount of times I have walked around either at university, at work, or even in shopping malls and have seen people callously, without thought, chuck a piece of paper on the floor. There is not even a hint of resignation. The wrapper comes off the chocolate, cigarettes, or other random item and soon finds itself floating down to the ground. This is even more infuriating when the people in question happen to be doing it while strolling past dustbins!

I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with people who have done this. I am not terribly good at holding my tongue but one of my proudest moments was when I was standing inside a petrol station and the person in front of me was talking on his phone while dealing with the cashier. He slowly unwrapped his cigarette pack, pulled off the plastic, and without a care in the world dropped it. I picked it up and in a clear loud voice (there was a queue and an audience always makes a moment like this that much sweeter) I said, “Excuse me, I think you dropped something”. The imbecile looked around sheepishly for a bit before stuffing the plastic into his pocket and leaving. A proud moment I tell you!

I am not sure what it is about littering that gets so deep under my skin, the act itself or the worn-out excuse of “I am creating jobs”. No, you are not creating jobs. The government is not going to look around one day and say “hey, you know what, one too many people littered today I think it is time we do something about our unemployment rates”. It’s not going to happen. It is a simple, baseless excuse.

But there are things, in my mind, that the South African government can do in terms of curbing littering. Singapore has the right idea. They are tough on littering and see it as a major problem. For a minor litter offence you will be expected to pay a fine of $300 and if you refuse you will then be sent to court where you will have to pay $1 000. In addition to this, Singapore is increasing the number of bins in the country and making sure that even more bins are placed at “hotspots” such as bus stops. Furthermore, they have created educational campaigns and are trying to create a new social norm where littering is frowned upon. [1]

But the economic and social situation in South Africa is markedly different to that of Singapore. South Africa not only has some of the highest rates of crime in the world, those crimes are also among the most violent. So why (or rather how) would South Africa manage to curb littering? There are barely enough resources to tackle the big burning issues, why would they want to pump money and other resources into curtailing a relatively small crime.

Well, the answer is simple. Littering is not as small an issue as you would like to believe. Green Works gives a wide range of reasons for why combatting littering is important, such as: litter blocks drains causing flooding, it kills aquatic life, it decays water, it creates a conducive environment for rats, which carry disease, it is costly, and it is unsightly.

That is not to say that there aren’t great initiatives within South Africa. Take for example Clean Up-South Africa and their Big Events or Trekking for Trash started by a couple who walked South African coastlines to raise awareness of the impact of littering. Initiatives such as these attempt to illustrate that littering is more than a minor offence that looks bad, rather it is a social phenomenon that has social consequences. One theory, often raised in the litter debate, is the broken-window theory.

In essence this theory maintains that if an environment is well-kept then it is unlikely that other social issues will arise there. But if an area is not maintained and deteriorates then it is likely that other social ills will also be found in these areas (such as crime, drug use etc). Therefore the cleaner and better maintained the area is the less likely crime is to persist within it. In the absence of others, people take cues from their environment as to what is or is not acceptable. That is, if you see one broken window that is left unattended you won’t feel bad about breaking another. In the same thinking, if you are in an environment that is unmaintained, dirty, and has little pride instilled in it then this environment will exacerbate bad behaviour.

Therefore, small seemingly insignificant crimes and annoyances should not be ignored as a result of more pressing, larger crimes because they may very well be related. So the next time you scrunch up a piece of paper, plastic, or cellophane, think about the state of disrepair in our country and ask yourself how you can contribute to making it a more liveable place by throwing your trash in a bin. Better yet, throw it in the correct coloured bin and recycle because every small deed may have big implications!

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  • Of black people, empty bottles and a body on the beach
    • Mina

      I grew up in a time when we were taught about littering, so I’ve always been very careful to not litter. I am a smoker, and have always thought that killing a cigarette in the sand, and burying it is okay, because it will disintegrate quickly. Big was my shock when I watched a programme of that couple walking the coastline, and learning that cigarette buts are the single most highest contributer to poluting our coastline and our waters. I learnt that it takes roughly 200 yrs for one cigarette but to disintegrate, and how it poisons our marine life. I am now almost compulsive at picking up stompies wherever I see one, coastline or not. Awareness campaigns do make a difference.

    • The Creator

      There’s a message in our pervasive littering, and it isn’t that people are ignorant about how unpleasant litter is. The message is that people are unwilling to make the slightest effort to solve a problem which will affect someone else and that someone else will have to clean up (if at all). It’s a lack of community respect and of collective concern, the kind of thing which the ANC supposedly wished to promote but somehow never has.

      How can we do something about this? It isn’t just trash on the ground, almost all the other ills affecting our society can be tracked back to a selfish lack of concern for the rights and interests of others — regardless of the obvious fact that any individual will be affected by the selfish lack of concern of others, too. Can we reconstruct a society around a common goal, sharing values of mutual respect, instead of just paying fraudsters and blowhards to attend conferences talking trash about this subject?

    • Baz

      Educate children from a early age not to litter, so they can be responsible adults later in life. It should from preschool years.

    • http://n/a heather gee

      I’ve been living in Canada for 18 years now and still mention the pride I experienced after a few Kirstenbosch classical Concerts – looking around and noticing that not one person had left their rubbish behind. Table Mountain trails were also always left clean. That was the position in Cape Town 18 years ago….

      Obviously, there has been a big negative change in peoples’ behaviour. I agree with the writer’s resolution about clamping down on all small infractions. and the positive change that brings about. New York is always quoted in this respect, where this exercise worked so well that the overall crime rate went down dramatically. It’s a matter of taking action when educating !

    • Tracy

      Good article Claudia. Yes, I absolutely agree. I’m a walker and on a Saturday afternoon I take a black bag and collect all the recyclable material as I walk. A 5 km route around Linksfield, Orange Grove and Sydenham will regularly yield 50 – 100 cans, glass bottles and plastic bottles. Snacks – drinks and chip packets – are the chief pollutants although the seedier the area the more brazen the litter. Closer to Louis Botha avenue people are not ashamed to leave mattresses outside their homes! There is room to make soft drink companies more accountable for where their products end up – extended producer liability is entrenched in the Waste Act. What is sad is how litter is especially concentrated around schools – Summerwood School in Sydenham and Athlone Girls High in Observatory come to mind in particular. I once picked up 23 plastic bottles outside Summerwood school alone! There needs to be some motivational speaking and leadership in these schools to shape the minds of the next generation.

    • Mariana De Leuca

      Last night Japanese fans were seen cleaning their part of the stands after match in Brazil World Cup:

      Class Act.

    • Nicole

      I share your frustration at seeing litter being carelessly tossed on the ground. There’s just something deeply insulting about the act. I don’t quite understand my reaction, but it feels like me, everyone else and the environment are being shown the proverbial finger.

      Blood boils.

      Weird reaction, I know.

    • Charl Coe

      Littering also indicates an attitude of insolence.