For many of us, the past year has been one we’ll be keen (but likely unable) to forget. The pandemic has forcibly familiarized us with a whole range of terms – ‘self-isolation’, ‘social distancing’, even ‘coronavirus’ – to which we have become reluctantly accustomed, but which we quietly continue to loathe. It’s been a year of learning, but not of the fulfilling variety.
No thing is all bad, though, and even coronavirus has had its upsides. One such positive has been a collective awakening regarding the importance of the ‘outside’ world; that is, the shared outdoor spaces which coronavirus initially removed our access to. Upon reopening, it immediately became clear that never in our recent history have we owed more to our communal environment: whether it be urban, or rural, or somewhere in between. Though many of us city-dwellers have come to feel disconnected from the natural world, the last year has proved that we need it now as much as we ever did. Where previous generations relied on the land for nutrition, during the pandemic we depended on it for emotional sustenance.
We’ve certainly learned the value of our outdoor spaces. What we are still failing to grasp, however, is the importance of treating the land with the respect it deserves. This collective failure of ours has been outlined at length by UK-based charity Keep Britain Tidy, who have recognised that the end of lockdown marked the beginning of a concerted littering campaign perpetrated by the British public. Our new post-lockdown mode of socialising – involving congregating in public spaces – has led to a vast amount of single-use plastic (food wrappers, bottles, cups) being strewn across our shared spaces. In some areas, the problem has become so serious that legislation has been introduced: Leeds City Council, for example, has banned the consumption of alcohol in certain parks.
The importance of reversing this societal habit cannot be overstated. Our shared spaces are absolutely integral to our mental and physical wellbeing; they act as our sanctuaries when the pressures of home life become too much. To contaminate them is to contaminate ourselves.
But all is not lost! Since 28 May, Keep Britain Tidy have been running the ‘Great British Spring Clean’. As part of this initiative, thousands of Britain’s residents will be trawling through parks, beaches and streets to ensure that they are as litter-free as possible. Running until the 13 June, this project represents a laudable effort to pay back the debt of gratitude which we owe to our natural spaces, and to offer them the same support which they have offered to us over the past few months.
The Great British Spring Clean is a great initiative – but it’s also not enough on its own. No single three week project can hope to undo the damage we routinely cause our public spaces; rather, what’s needed is a change to our societal norms. It’s this kind of long-lasting change that projects like the Great British Spring Clean can help to kickstart. Littering is a habit; but so is not littering, or indeed litter hunting. And whilst habits can take some time to form, this process doesn’t happen in a vacuum: if we improve out own behaviour, we can also improve the behaviour of our peers.
Don’t just take our word for this. A 1990 study by social psychologists found that subjects tended to mirror the behaviour of those around them with respect to littering: if surrounded by conscientious people they too were conscientious, whilst in the company of thoughtless friends they became thoughtless. With this in mind, the public visibility of Keep Britain Tidy’s devoted litter-pickers – who have so far pledged over 1,000,000 miles to the cause – is likely to have a kind of butterfly effect: previously ambivalent bystanders may take note, improve their own behaviour, go on to influence their own friends, and so on.
This really is an area in which taking personal responsibility can help to encourage collective accountability: in the battle against littering, ‘I’ very quickly becomes ‘we’. With this in mind, we should all give real consideration to the idea of pledging some of our time to the Great British Spring Clean: it might do more good than you think!