help the ocean

Litter during Covid-19

Anna is reuniting with her friends for the first time in four months for a beach holiday. The sun sparkling on the water and white sandy beaches make it feel as if the novel coronavirus that had forced her and her friends into quarantine for so long was a far away threat.

Her friends spend hours laughing and talking over beers as they catch up on everything that’s been going on. As the beers finish, one of her friends tosses their can on the beach, and more people follow. Not wanting to look out of place by taking her can to the trashcan, she tosses hers too.

Ed is enjoying a sunny day at the park, and brings along some takeout. He sets the takeout next to him on the bench as he enjoys his food, and then sees a friend across the way. He leaves the litter on the bench for just a minute to go say hello, and then forgets all about it.

The problem of litter

These examples are fake. Anna and Ed are merely figments of my imagination, but the tons of garbage being left in public spaces isn’t. Littering has become a huge problem during the pandemic. Some parks have reopened, only to close again because park officials simply couldn’t keep up with the trash people have left behind.

Litter picker such as @Tentsmuir on twitter, an ultramarthon runner, are one of the people who pick up after those who don’t seem to get it. When asked about an increase in litter, this was the response:

“The litter is a lot worse since lockdown. More people in the forest / on the beach. There are loads of good folk out there picking up litter besides me. But the newcomers to the forest just don’t get it.”

The increase in litter seems to be directly tied to the lockdowns. @_CleanSea is based out of Sweden, which didn’t have a lockdown. When we asked them about litter increase, they responded with:

“We can still find trash from sources in Sweden since Sweden has not had a lockdown. A lot of the trash also comes from the fishing industry or via The Gulf Stream. We currently find as much trash as usual, but are not sure how much we will find in the future…”

Resolving litter

Littering is a big problem, and can have catastrophic effects on wildlife. According to statistics, 17% of people litter when observed in a normal (pre-covid) situation. Littering increases when recycling and trash bins are full, or too far away.

People are also more likely to litter if the location they are in is already trashed, or because they think someone will pick up for them and it’s not their responsibility. Luckily, it’s also possible to change the behavior of those who litter. Here are actionable ways to help stop littering:

  • Clean it up
    Clean areas are less likely to be littered than dirty areas. One of the most actionable things you can do to help stop littering in the first place is to clean up the litter you see. When in an area is kept nice, fewer people will litter.

    In one study, researchers found that no one—absolutely no one—littered when someone was actively picking litter in the area.
  • Educate
    Getting people to recognize littering and the problem it can be can be tricky. Almost everyone has heard about the problems of litter, seen a commercial, or read an article. Awareness is more than just knowing littering is wrong however, it’s experiencing the problem.

    Some communities are changing the conversation through museum pieces showcasing garbage, through artwork, and decorating recycling and trashbins for more engagement.
  • Petition for more trash bins
    If trash bins are full, people are more likely to litter. Yet some people litter even when trash bins are available and empty because they are too far away. Even if a trash bin might seem a reasonable distance to the park manager, it suddenly becomes a vast distance when you have to drag three kids with you, are disabled, or peer pressure is looming.

    More trash and recycling options can greatly reduce littering.

Litter is a struggle, and always has been. While Covid-19 has certainly caused more people to go out in nature—and also to litter—this is an opportunity for change as well. By drawing attention to the problem, we can both control the litter and perhaps help new people learn about the dangers of plastic pollution.

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