Walk any residential street in Ireland and take a look at the outside spaces – the balconies, gardens and porches. They are as variable as the people that live within. Some take great pride in their gardens. They are well cared for – pruned, neat as a new pin. Others aren’t even on top of the litter.
Sometimes we even define neighbours by their interest in their garden. And of course, gardeners frequently define themselves as such, seeking out like-minded others who share their green-fingered interests. So much of what we do everyday is driven by how see ourselves, who we believe we are and how this connects us to others. Social psychologists see these collective attributes of our selves as crucial to social behaviour. And solutions of collective problems are often best addressed by appeals to our sense of shared or collective identity.
The last weeks and particularly over the spell of good weather coinciding with school holidays have seen increasing concern with pollution and litter at beauty spots around the country such as the Wild Atlantic Way. An appreciation of the outdoors, more physical activity and increased revenue from tourism are all welcome consequences of this increased use of these tourist hot spots. Managing the potential for littering is therefore something worth doing.
We can think about any social issue – such as pollution or littering – and try and explain it by thinking about aspects of the individual. However thinking about it as a collective problem created through shared values, norms and behaviours is much more likely to to deliver a useful solution. There is now ample evidence from social psychological studies to suggest that social cues can be important determinants of behaviour. Social behaviours spread through social networks.
So for example, it has been demonstrated that snacking can be increased (or decreased) in experimental contexts, if others increase (or decrease) their snacking. Indeed much health messaging is based on the importance of social cues. Cues that could act in favour of minimising litter include reminders to people to bring litter home and ensuring bins are present to facilitate refuse disposal. And, importantly, social cues can be negative and positive.
The presence of litter communicates to users what is acceptable in terms of its disposal. This can be particularly important where a situation is ambivalent, as often happens during busy times where rubbish is placed alongside already filled bins.
But, of course, littering is not just down to the councils managing bins, or providing water fountains to reduce single-use plastic bottles. Littering is also intrinsically linked to our sense of who owns the space being littered. We wouldn’t dream of littering a well-tended garden. This is for two reasons – first the clean, tidy space communicates that someone has taken responsibility for the space and is managing it. And so we try not to encroach or violate that space. So if we want our public spaces to be managed and respected, kept clean of litter, we need to offer a sense that these are valued spaces that we all must take responsibility for as a nation. We need to make responsibility for shared space a national civic duty, an essential part of being a good citizen.
Cues that could act in favour of minimising litter include reminders to people to bring litter home and ensuring bins are present to facilitate refuse disposal
In real terms, this will require all of us to take responsibility for these spaces from time to time. Last year I spent a wonderful sabbatical abroad at the University of Queensland in Australia. I had the chance to experience Australian life. It’s a life outdoors and, everywhere in Brisbane at least, there are communal barbecues – gas-powered at the touch of a button – free for all to use in shared parklands and public spaces. Something we discussed a lot was the respect people had for these amenities – how they were left clean for the next user. We never saw them vandalised or even broken. Could a system like this work in Ireland?
One norm that Irish people often share is an unwillingness to reprimand users who abuse the system. In so much as the Aussies are direct and don’t tolerate abuse of these shared resources, we Irish are confrontation-averse. To manage shared resources we are going to have to find a way of acting authoritatively when others dump or litter our valued sites like the Wild Atlantic Way. We are much more likely to grumble after the fact rather than ask another adult to take home their rubbish.
To start, clean-ups that remove plastics from beaches and our waters would help. Negative cues would be removed and normative evidence of littering would be cleared. In this context, asking someone to take their litter home makes more sense. And part of the battle in reducing this litter has to be the reduction of single-use plastics which linger in our environment as litter in perpetuity. But on hot days people need water. So water fountains need to work and people need reusable bottles at the ready. And making single-use plastic counternormative will reduce its use. Linking use of reusable cups to a diverse range of positive existing causes and identities such as Irishness, environmentalism, farming, entrepreneurship, tidy towners and even good parenting is likely to offer traction for change. Leadership will help. Popular sports people, celebrities and political leaders kickstarting the clean-up and articulating how and why we need to be concerned about litter is essential.
Part of the battle has to be the reduction of single-use plastics which linger in our environment in perpetuity
We have seen huge social change in this country in the last 30 years. Dealing with accumulated plastics and litter on the Wild Atlantic Way is in no way beyond us. In fact it’s the kind of challenge that Irish people normally embrace. I look forward to attending the first clean-ups in the closing days of our long summer. Might see you there.
Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at the University of Limerick