Is it worth cleaning up the in the neighborhood?
Except for the missions I gave Sandra for her birthday (check the blog The First Step), there are also other moments where we are actively cleaning up litter. Just because the frustration is great when we walk somewhere and see so much junk. And also because of the the satisfaction afterwards!
Sometimes we deliberately make a detour in the neighborhood, armed with garbage bags, gloves and grabbers. We live in a decent, mixed neighborhood: some 70s low-rise and 30 single-family homes. There are some schools, more and more trendy coffeeshops and dining places, and a small park. The park near our house is quite a nice park with a playground, rose garden, football field and even a tabletennis table.
Recently we picked up litter in the park for an hour and came home with 2 full trash bags and 1 found (!) empty shopping bag that we effortlessly also filled with junk.
So … if you measure the cleanliness of the neighborhood to the amount of picked up litter (the beer cans, the cigarette butts, the paper tissues, drinks and so on), then suddenly I’m not so convinced that I’m living in a decent neighborhood.
What does science say?
I somewhat suspected that a clean environment encourages people to keep the environment clean, but does it really help? Is that really really scientifically proven?
Yes it helps; environmental psychologist Kees Keizer (University of Groningen) proved this in various experiments. More on his research here, below two of his findings.
A clean environment not only makes people less inclined to throw litter on the street, it also positively impacts the influence of other norms and rules on behaviour. Experiments show that the presence of litter (disorder) increases the chance that others throw their litter in the streets as well, and decreases the helpfulness of people and kindness to others. Besides the positive effect of cleaning the street in general, it is proven that the visible act of cleaning up has an extra positive effect on the behaviour of citizens.
What is true for disorder is also true for order: observing someone who clearly respects a norm encourages to other norm-conforming behaviour. It turned out that the amount of people who helped someone who had dropped their shopping nearly doubled if the have seen someone clean the pavement just before.
Is the park lastingly cleaner?
That is too early to say. The mothers on the playground have so far been friendly but say or do nothing at that moment (but maybe I planted a seed in their minds?). Promising was a boy who came to ask what I was doing. He nodded in understanding on my answer that I clean it up because that junk does not belong there. Next time I will invite him on the spot to pick up some (remember to bring extra gloves!). And Sandra met a woman who took the trouble to say that she liked what we are doing and even offered to help next time.
Time will tell if there is indeed less litter left behind in the park. But we will continue to be strengthened by science! The research of Kees Keizer learned me that when people see you clean up, chances are that they will start doing it themselves as well. And not only that, they become more helpful anyway. So, cleaning up litter is not only a super thing to do for the environment but also drive a more kind and more social environment. Who can argue with that?!