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The Citizen on Trash

Ideas We Should Steal: Creative Cleanup

A London nonprofit adopts a filthy city street to find ways to discourage litter—and succeeds.

A London nonprofit adopts a filthy city street to find ways to discourage litter—and succeeds.

What do you do when you’re done smoking a cigarette in Philadelphia, or chewing a piece of gum? If you’re on one particular block of North Broad Street, chances are, you throw it on to the ground, where it joins the rest of the litter, becoming one of the 500 butts that lined the crevices one December afternoon or one of the thousands of black gum stains that polka-dot the gray concrete of the sidewalk.

It’s as though we think it normal to toss our trash onto the streets. It’s not. As Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin’s father says in Street Eagle, the NFL Films production about his son: “I can’t believe anyone would litter where they live.”

But what if you could use your butts to vote for your favorite college team? Or, help create a gum mosaic with your Bubbaloo? Or get serenaded by a trash can, just for using it? Would that make you less inclined to toss your trash onto the street?

That was the proposition this year of an English environmentalist group that adopted a notoriously filthy London street, Villiers, for a series of creative cleaning initiatives called Neat Streets. The social experiment—created by UK charity Hubbub, working with London students, designers, Westminster City Council and several packaging companies—consisted of nine different installations intended to challenge passersby to take responsibility for litter in a way that was fun and intriguing.

For several days during the campaign from May to October, a group of volunteers seemingly set up a picnic on a small patch of green on Villiers Street, then jumped up for a flash mob dance performance, with a trumpet blaring, when they spotted someone picking up trash from the ground—an impromptu celebration of cleaning up. On one part of Villiers, a “talking” trash can made the sound of a sneeze, or a belch or a toilet flushing when something was thrown away. On another, a mural of a face slowly emerged from pieces of chewed gum. All down the block, volunteers circled every piece of gum on the sidewalk to show how dirty the streets are.

Elle McAll, creative partner for Hubbub, said the most successful initiative tapped into Londoners’ passion for sports: A ballot bin for cigarette butts that asked smokers on Villiers Street to vote for “Who will win Saturday’s London Derby?” or “Which [sports program] would you prefer to watch?” The butts created a bar graph that calculated the winner. (Chelsea won the votes for the Derby; Italian F1 Grand Prix won the votes for the sports program.)

“We all want cleaner, greener, healthier living spaces around us,” McAll said. “Respecting the environment in our immediate surroundings is perhaps the first step to engaging with other bigger environmental issues.”

One of Hubbub’s goals was to be transparent about which projects worked in getting people to clean up, and which ones didn’t. McAll said the programs that were overly-complicated, like Musical Butts, were not as effective as those that were more straightforward, like the ballot bin and a campaign that enlisted residents to take a pledge to keep their street clean by snapping a photo of them holding a sign in their own handwriting that says “My Street is Your Street.” The posters were hung along the entire street to encourage others to make a similar pledge.

It turns out that Brits are like Philadelphians in their frustration with trash. A press release from Hubbub cites a survey that has found 90 percent of Brits believe that not enough is being done about the trash problem, and 81 percent say trash in their local areas frustrates and angers them. Hubbub’s experiment found that a little creative intervention can make a difference. During and after Neat Streets, Hubbub counted 26 percent less litter on Villiers Street. New chewed gum, in particular, dropped significantly while old gum stains were circled on the sidewalk; after the experiment ended, gum dropping went back to its original levels.

McAll says Hubbub is planning to do similar interventions in two more towns in the UK next year to test others ways to encourage cleaner living spaces. And the organization plans to release free Neat Street kits online in January, and to consult with other organizations that want to replicate it in their city.

Maybe Philadelphia should take them up on the offer. After all, we have dozens of Villiers Streets here. Under Mayor Nutter, the city has tried to raise public awareness of the litter problem. The Streets Department unleashed its “Unlitter Us” project a couple years ago, replacing it recently with “Pick It Up Philly,” a more hectoring version of Hubbub’s “My Street is Your Street” project. But so far, neither campaign has made much of a dent in our litter problem.

Is a Hubbub-like intervention on North Broad Street what we need? We love public art. We are as opinionated—especially about our sports. And we want litter-free streets. The issue is having the public will—and private enterprise—to coordinate an effort like that on Villiers Street, which cost around £100,000 (about $150,000) for all nine projects over five months.

There could be a way, though. Pennsylvania’s “Adopt an Area” campaign, the program that lets corporations adopt highways, also lets them adopt neighborhood blocks for free—a part of the program that is under-utilized. Launching even one or two of Hubbub’s initiatives on that block could make a huge difference. McAll says her organization plans to sell its cigarette ballot bin internationally starting in January. Imagine that litter-filled block of North Broad Street with a ballot box asking smokers to weigh in on which pro team is worse: Sixers or Phillies? Pretty sure we’d count fewer butts on the sidewalk then.

Or, perhaps this is an idea for Mayor-elect Jim Kenney and the Streets Department. After all, reducing litter saves taxpayers money on trash pickup. And research by Penn professor Charles Branas has found that cleaning up and greening abandoned properties in Philadelphia decreased gun violence and vandalism, and made community members less stressed and more fit from helping to green up their neighborhoods.

“We all want cleaner, greener, healthier living spaces around us,” McAll said. “Respecting the environment in our immediate surroundings is perhaps the first step to engaging with other bigger environmental issues.”

Header Photo via Hubbub

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