CORRECTING a bad habit is harder than learning not to pick it up in the first place. On this understanding, the renewed anti-littering drive started this week will have a better chance of success if the young are taught the correct habits early, besides reforming the ways of offending adults. Much of the new emphasis is based on the findings of a year-long behavioural study for which the National Environment Agency (NEA) interviewed 4,500 people. Despite 50 years of state-sponsored campaigns and public education, the lesson has essentially not been taught well where it matters most - within the family. Two generations of people have grown up being taught in school not to litter, but they have been spotty about passing on the right values to their offspring.
So, of the three groups of people the NEA is targeting, parents - especially mothers - are the most important. The survey found a person was 2.4 times more likely to follow the bad example of family members. While most mothers recognise their responsibility, the campaign has far to go. At foodcourts, parents are known to stop their children from clearing up after a meal or picking up tissue paper and scraps blown off the table. They tell the young it is the cleaner's job. This is a disgrace, a social disease. Lessons conceivably would be learnt the hard way by these youngsters in adulthood, through fines and community work orders (CWOs).
Even in trying to get the message through to young people, another of its target groups, the NEA may find the task daunting. More than two-thirds of 1,500 students surveyed said they littered. Nearly a quarter of these said nothing would stop them from doing so. It is the same with smokers: Nine out of 10 litterbugs apprehended in the past five years were caught throwing cigarette butts on the ground. More than a third of smokers admitted they littered. Smokers seem past the stage where preventive education could do some good. Enforcement and punitive measures are the only option.
Yet, the value of shaming - especially through CWOs which will be made more onerous and visible - is questionable. Instead of changing behaviour, being shamed publicly can build resentment in some adults and harden bad attitudes. The NEA is right to step up enforcement and align penalties with other environment-related agencies, but it should realise the limitations. As a practical step, more bins in busy public spaces will certainly reinforce the message. Usually, these are too few and too hard to find. When the contents spill over, overflowing bins are not emptied promptly. NEA, take note.