Why is litter still a problem?

According to a select committee report into the issue, there’s little evidence that we’ve made much progress over the last decade or so:

“…while litter levels across England have not deteriorated over the last 12 years, there has been no significant improvement across the period. Or, as noted by Samantha Harding from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), ‘we are possibly just containing the litter problem’. The 2013/14 survey included a regional breakdown of results, which showed that there was only marginal variation between the regions.”

The report admits the statistics are somewhat sketchy, but one only has to walk or drive around to see that the litter lout is alive and well in the 21st century.

Writing yesterday on ConservativeHome, Judy Terry explores some possible solutions to the problem; but it’s also important to ask why it happens in the first place. In particular, what explains the persistence of littering when most other forms of anti-social behaviour – such as petty theft, vandalism, binge drinking and drug misuse – are in decline?

It’s worth noting that the trend away from disorder can’t be explained by the ageing of population, indeed, the decline is most clearly observed among the younger generation. But not, it would seem, in respect to litter.

Littering, unlike most forms of anti-social behaviour, doesn’t require any misdirected effort on the part of those responsible – indeed, its very purpose is to avoid effort. While one has to go out of one’s way to vandalise public property, festooning it with fast food packaging and cigarette butts couldn’t be more convenient (for the litterbug).

If the young are generally more law-abiding than their parents’ generation were at the same age, it isn’t necessarily because they’re better people; it could just be because there’s more to distract them from acts of petty criminality. Dropping litter, however, is all too easily done while, say, texting a friend or updating a social media site.

Still, such a blatantly inconsiderate act does require a monumental level of self-absorption – so where does that come from? Here’s a clue taken from a review in the Economist of The Road to Character by David Brooks:

“The proportion of American teenagers who believe themselves to be ‘very important’ jumped from 12% in 1950 to 80% in 2005. On a test that asks subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as ‘I like to look at my body’ and ‘Somebody should write a biography about me’, 93% of young Americans emerge as being more narcissistic than the average of 20 years ago…

Like littering, the cult of self-esteem is still very much with us – despite the evidence of the damage it does. If you’ve been taught to see yourself at the centre of the universe, then not bothering to take your rubbish home with you might seem quite reasonable.

The presence of litter is sometimes taken as proof of a rundown, dysfunctional  community that lacks pride in itself. But what about places – including large parts of this country – that are increasingly safe and prosperous? What does the persistence of litter say about them? Perhaps it speaks not of a lack of collective pride, but a surfeit of the individual kind.