How to tackle litter in schools

5th October 2012  |  by Greg

How to tackle litter in schools

(Even if you’re not trying to tackle litter this a great example of how reasonable expectations, reasonable consequences, reasonably delivered is always the way to go.)

Nobody likes litter. The reasons people hate it and reasons that people drop it are numerous and not for this blog post. Instead, I’m going to suggest some ways of minimising it.

Let’s take an average secondary school and I’m going to guess that this average secondary has major issues with litter.

Start with Fair Process

I wrote about Fair Process here. When you want to create some new expectations within an organisation, this is the best way to do it. When we engage those that might be affected by our decisions, when we explain the reasoning for these decisions and then define success criteria in very specific terms, we really do create the best chance of cooperation with our new policies. Let’s look at the three steps of Fair Process in turn:

1. Engage

Use class and school councils plus suggestion boxes and questionnaires to find out what people think about litter and some suggested ways of tackling it. Easy really.

2. Explain

Now, taking the collected input from the school community, make a decision and then explain the decision to the school community. Below, I have suggested some decisions you might make, but your engagement work might lead you to different ones.

Now, it’s essential at this point that you check that your expectations are reasonable. In terms of litter, if you’ve provided enough litter bins in the appropriate areas, is it reasonable to expect everybody in a school community to put their litter in the bin? (I think it is. If you think it isn’t, stop reading now.) This is so important because if you are confident that your expectations are reasonable, you are much more likely to ensure that they happen.

Then go to the school community and tell about this new expectation and why you think it’s a good idea. Use assemblies, newsletters, the school website, tutor time, posters and any other way of politely letting the community know the what and why of your new expectations. Also, tell the school community about some ways  that will be used to encourage people to put their litter in the bin and what will happen if they don’t. We’ll come to this soon.

3. Define your expectations

It’s actually very easy to define putting litter in a bin. There are some grey areas but nowhere near as many are there are for something like uniform. (Any philosophers out there want to define the difference between shoes and trainers?) For example, what if a student drops a crisp packet by accident? Personally, I think this is still dropping litter, accidental or not. If the consequence is reasonable then nobody will feel too bad about delivering it or receiving it. I’d also say that if students eat at a table, they’d be responsible for returning their plate or putting wrappers and cups in the bin. This would still count as “littering” if they didn’t.

Next: Make sure pupils know you are supportively asking for help with the litter issue

There are a couple of ways of doing this. Firstly, what about ring-fencing the money saved on clearing up litter to be spent on stuff the students will see and benefit from. This might be extra litter bins, cheaper canteen food or anything else the school community will appreciate.

Additionally, encouraging pupils through random prizes when putting litter in the bin is a fun way to heighten the profile of the new expectation. In practice this means giving a nice prize to the first person to put a piece of litter in a specific bin after a given time of the day. (It is not designed to “reinforce” positive behaviour. Don’t get me started on Skinner.) For example, the first person to put litter in the bin nearest to the blue doors in the canteen after 11.02am on Monday gets a free sandwich of their choice. Do this regularly, changing the time and the location.

Have some reasonable consequences

I talked about the difference between punishments and consequences in a blog post back in May. I got the following idea from driver awareness training that someone I know well attended last year and I think it’s clearly a consequence, not a punishment.

Litter awareness training

Any members of the school community who are seen still dropping litter after you’ve consulted them, explained your decision and made plain the consequence for doing so, should attend a 10 minute presentation about why putting litter in the bin is such a good idea. They don’t have to attend but the only other option is a traditional 30 minute after-school detention. (Driver’s don’t have to attend driver awareness training; they can choose to get three points on their licence instead.) Driver awareness training seeks to educate drivers who have broken the speed limit as to the reasons why speed limits exist. It’s a supportive consequence. It’s not preachy or punitive; it’s real and realistic. Apply the same principal to litter.

Focus areas (the litter equivalent of “speed traps”)

It’s hard for staff to keep an eye on the whole school, so instead tell the school community that certain areas, maybe a specific table in the canteen or a small and defined outside area will have a special focus at certain times. Just don’t tell students when or where this is. If staff see that litter is dropped or left on tables, then students should be asked to attend litter awareness training. Of course, if any students drop litter or leave it on the table, even if they’re not in a focus area or on a focus table, they will receive the consequence too.

By the way, this is not trying to catch students out. It is simply showing them that the school cares enough about this expectation to ensure everyone follows it. It is intelligent accountability.

Ensure consequences are delivered supportively

“I’m really sorry, I’ll have to ask you to attend litter awareness training.” No pleasure or anger or disappointment, just a tinge of regret that you’ve been forced to apply the very reasonable and proportionate consequence that has been decided upon after consulting the school community.

Only act based on what you see

You may get reports that someone has dropped litter. You may be convinced that someone left their sandwich wrapper on the table but you didn’t actually see them do it. All you can do in this scenario is remind students of the expectation. You’ll get some students that will try to drop litter more surreptitiously, but if you’ve used Fair Process then this will be minimal. Most students will see that it’s a good thing, with their best interests at it’s heart.

Be consistent

You can’t “let anyone off”. Ever. Sorry, it’s just not fair.

Relationships need rules

Think about marriage vows. We have them because relationships will break down very quickly if we don’t have some reasonable expectations of each other. In school, I think it’s reasonable to expect everyone to put litter in the bin. We’ll all get on better when we do. Tidy, eh?

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