The art of tackling littering

Being environmentally conscious is more than just conserving forests and green-cover. The term encompasses a deeper concept – which includes a change in mindset, outlook and lifestyles. One very simple example of this “change in mindset” is to stop littering.

Image: A picture clicked at Lonavla Hill Station. Notice the white specks? There are thermocol plates thrown there by picnickers.

Today millions of Indians travel all over the world and when they return from places like Singapore, Europe or USA, express their envy of the cleanliness of cities abroad. They even wonder how Hollywood movies show people wearing “outside” shoes inside their homes and on their beds (what?!! Shoes on the bed?!). They mention of strict rules in place where people are fined for littering in public spaces. The best part is we Indians follow those rules like mandated doctrines abroad, but the moment we land at our airport, back home, in our own country, we get back into our good old habit of littering!

Many would say we are afraid of being penalised and hence follow the rules in other countries but not here. Is it really that simple? Actually it starts with what examples we see when we grow up and what we set for our children. Those of us who have access to basic necessities like food, water, shelter, toilet, and health-care cannot give any more excuses. Take a moment to reflect on how we can maintain a clean and healthy environment in the city. First let us start with ourselves as to how we can avoid littering and next we can see how to persuade others not to. For ourselves, let us follow this golden rule: The size and material of the object is not proportional to the seriousness of the act of littering… in other words, DON’T litter, EVER.

Now many of you must be thinking, ‘hey I follow that!’. Think how often you not do that. The point is not just littering plastics or something obviously visible. Do not litter anything. This is about inculcating a habit in you to never litter no matter what the situation is. You get off the bus and you unknowingly crumble the ticket and drop it on the ground, it is so small, barely noticeable on the streets. You eat a banana and throw the peels, it’s organic you think, and the earth will magically just process it overnight. You sharpen your pencils in your desk and the shavings lie on the floor. You are chewing your bubble-gum and “spat”, off it goes flying, sticking to the street. That inch and a half cigarette butt thrown on the ground is better off there rather than inside a dustbin (what if it causes a fire, you ask?!).

I have heard some people argue- I never throw dry waste, but this (pointing to wet food on dry waste) chocolate wrapper is all sticky and dirty and I cannot carry it in my bag, so this I will throw away (Note: carry a spare paper bag with you to dump garbage, especially when you travel).

Image: People have been hired to pick trash from railway tracks (Mumbai Local- Harbour Line). This picture was taken during morning peak hours. As regular commuters, do we realise how we are contributing to the creation of such a hazardous job?

So remember that “do not litter” should not selectively be followed as per convenience. It must apply to all situations and conditions. Efficient disposal of all forms of waste is a well-established idea that even the most ancient civilisations had realised to be extremely important when it comes to societal hygiene. In some countries, pet owners are responsible for the “shit” of their pets. That is the level of commitment we should have to keep our surroundings clean. Carry your trash with you. Set an example for others to follow.

Now how do we persuade others? For this, we must first understand the psyche of the “litterer”. A lot of factors are at play here: lack of awareness, peer influence, socio-economic background, habits picked up from people around us, education, citizenry culture and habits etc. We must attempt to understand why someone would litter. Anger does not take you anywhere. So do not lose it when someone litters.

A small child throwing a chocolate wrapper on the street should not be met with strict reprimand from a stranger. The parent could perhaps get angry, but not random strangers like you and I. The child does what he/she sees. So while convincing kids, one must maintain a warm approach.

Similarly, when you are dealing with adults, you need to also consider the “ego factor”. I came across this one incidence where journalists were abused when they asked some commuters not to litter. While this might not be the full story, from my own personal experience, I know for sure that many commuters are hostile and they react negatively when confronted about littering. I guess they are thinking- who the hell are you to tell me this? OR everyone is littering, why am I being singled out?

In order to avoid this, I would suggest the following strategies. Pick up the littered trash and throw it in a nearby bin, within the field of vision of the perpetrator. Say with utmost humility, kya aunty/uncle- you should be telling us not to throw. I feel so bad when you do that. A humble show of concern sometimes helps in creating a guilt factor in the person.

If you are tackling a young person, then you should approach the person and say (in a low voice) statements like- We are the younger generation. We should be setting a good example, and not do the mistakes others before us did. I feel bad when people like us litter the place. Please think about it. Including yourself in the same “bandwagon” as the litterer often helps to make your argument. The receiver of such statements would be more receptive of what you have to say, since they won’t feel cornered, or singled out.

A lot of people may disagree with these tactics, and may prefer shaming the person in public, make them feel guilty and humiliated, such that they would never dare to do that deed again. But such techniques need to be used very carefully since they do have a higher chance of backfiring according to me. At the end of the day, the message of “not littering” needs to be highlighted. The cause has to be bigger than you. After a point, you must rid of your own ego to tackle such issues and not think like: why should I pick up their trash, why should I be polite when they did the dirty work, why should I include myself in the conversation, I don’t litter.

Citizen groups and the Municipal Corporation have been trying to put various measures in place to control littering. Apparently collecting lakhs of rupees as fine also did not put an end to this habit. But at the end of the day, effort has to be made by the everyday citizen. There has to be this sense of pride associated with keeping our environment clean. We must invest the same amount of time that we spend in keeping our concrete houses clean, in keeping our environment outside the four walls clean.

Lastly, you might often find yourself not raising your voice when you see “littering instances”. Perhaps you feel this is a losing battle, sometimes you are not in the mood to pick up a fight, sometimes you know you might get yelled at, sometimes you feel its no use, sometimes you feel embarrassed to raise this issue alone. I have found myself in all of these situations. It’s ok. If you think you have the strength in you, that day, raise your voice and show your concern. You never know, someone may back you up.

It is also a good idea to make sure you voice your opinion in different forms (talk, write, showcase) about the causes that you are passionate about. Someone is bound to listen at some point. We must lead the way by practising what we preach. This will in turn inspire individuals to be responsible and carry on the message ahead. Look at the larger good- Our environment and her good health.

Acknowledgments: Hamsa Iyer, Aarthi and Krishnamachari.

The above piece is a edited version of my article titled the same, that originally appeared in 2014 in an online platform called The Alternative. [Link no longer active]

Education and Awareness

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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. How true.

    Some of us tried to no avail- but from those that have travelled, things are getting better-progress is slow for the country is big and education takes a while to seep in!


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