Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The curious phenomenon of littering by waste bins Does it seem odd to you that some fellow-citizens are sufficiently conscientious about their recyclable waste to take it all off to the neighbourhood recycling containers; but then they just dump it on the pavement? There was an example recorded in some detail over on the Kings Cross site recently (thanks Will): ‘Once in the morning I caught one man who also had just dumped his waste in spite of an empty container, and when I showed him that the container was in fact empty, he shrug his shoulders and walked apologetically off (leaving his waste though put). On this and on other occasions I have just taken other people’s rubbish and put it inside the container. It seems a task impossible to some.’ This contrasts nicely with a similar case that I reported in chapter 4 of Respect in the neighbourhood a few years ago, thanks to a picture sent to me by my Belgian friend Jan Steyaert. It shows a standard bottle-recycling facility in Antwerp, with the ubiquitous blue plastic bag on the ground alongside. At the front of the container someone has placed a board with a message painted on it, which reads in Dutch ‘vetzak verboden te storten.’ The English translation is: ‘Don’t leave litter you slimebag.’ (Subsequently I have thought that a better translation would be ‘you fat slob’). The language chosen by our Kings Cross correspondent is quite different. His note read ‘please insert the waste into the container out of neighbourly respect.’ In the book, considering alternative communication options for the person who painted the vetzak message on the board, at the end of a short list I added: ‘In a connected, networked neighbourhood, a comment posted online might have broadened awareness of the problem and produced a collective response.’ I suspect there may be other examples beyond Kings Cross and I’d be pleased to be told about them. So this phenomenon of almost but not quite properly disposing of litter, what’s it about? Perhaps if you’re carrying stuff in the other hand, you might not easily be able to open the container. Perhaps you dread the stench on opening; or you don’t want to risk getting dirty hands from touching the handle or lid, if you’re off somewhere posh. Maybe you're confused about the separation of different kinds of waste so you'd rather it stays hidden in a single bag. Or you can't quite bring yourself to conform completely. Or you might think it’s easier for the operatives, as I believe they are called, to pick your stuff up from the floor rather than use the technology designed for the purpose. I’m struggling to think of any convincing explanations here. Ok let’s suppose that some people are less comfortably acquainted with the idea of a public realm and public norms of behaviour, than others are. They have a relatively low level of Public Realm Awareness (PRA) – not close to zero, like the dickhead financier I mentioned recently, but low enough to...

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