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