Time for us to clean up our act

Published: Thursday | December 27, 2012 Comments 0
Children and volunteers participate in an anti-litter march in Belmont, Westemoreland. - file
Children and volunteers participate in an anti-litter march in Belmont, Westemoreland. - file
An anti-littering sign in Great Bay, St Elizabeth. - Contributed
An anti-littering sign in Great Bay, St Elizabeth. - Contributed
Marlene Stephenson-Dally, coordinator of the Tourism Product Development Company's Spruce Up Jamaica programme, deposits a bottle into a hand bin along the Hip Strip in Montego Bay, alongside Neville Black, regional manager of the National Solid Waste Management Authority. - FILE
Marlene Stephenson-Dally, coordinator of the Tourism Product Development Company's Spruce Up Jamaica programme, deposits a bottle into a hand bin along the Hip Strip in Montego Bay, alongside Neville Black, regional manager of the National Solid Waste Management Authority. - FILE

IN THE decades around Independence, there were numerous complaints in the media and elsewhere that littering had almost become part of the Jamaican culture. Persons would throw empty patty bags, boxed-lunch boxes, boxed-juice boxes, drinking straws, wrappers and tissue out of car, bus, and taxi windows on the roadside, or while walking, drop them on the ground when they had emptied them of their contents.

When the age of plastic came upon us, roadsides and playgrounds became so overrun with plastic bottles and bags that littering assumed the proportions of a scandal.

Stray animals were everywhere - goats, pigs, cows, dogs - turning over garbage cans day and night, wandering through open gates or jumping fences, eating hedges, flowers and 'flowers-bush'. Landscaping public places was almost impossible as stray farm animals would 'nyam' them down. Only certain poisonous plants were planted - those the goats wouldn't touch.

In contrast, we Jamaicans are some of the cleanest in the world, bathing sometimes twice a day, washing our food carefully, not eating from 'just anybody', thoroughly cleaning our homes and polishing our floors, sweeping our yards to the bare earth, and so on. We clean our personal surroundings, but happily litter public spaces.

Some of the civilising measures the citizenry looked for from an independent Jamaica were anti-litter legislation resembling that of other countries where, to drop a small piece of paper could bring a fine of US$50 - hefty in those days; and measures to remove stray animals from the streets. We can argue that, 50 years into Independence, we are yet to see these problems seriously addressed.

The Anti-Litter Act was passed in 1985 and came into effect on January 1, 1986 - 24 years after Independence. I suppose one might say 'better late than never', but late indeed it was.

A person became guilty of an offence if he or she threw, dropped or deposited, or left litter in a public place; or if he or she put or displayed anything in a public place or on a building, wall, fence, or structure adjoining a public place which defaced those structures. The offender is served a ticket to pay the fine within 21 days. If the fine is not paid, a bench warrant is issued. If the person does not turn up at court, he or she can be arrested and fined $500.

litter wardens

Persons authorised to issue tickets - litter wardens - included public cleansing inspectors from Metropolitan Parks and Markets (and the other entities), market managers, parking inspectors, Kingston and St Andrew Corporation traffic wardens, and Transport Authority inspectors.

By 1990, the system was deemed not to be working. The littering continued, and few arrests were made. The most common reason put forward was that there was a "shortage of litter wardens". The only time I ever heard of arrests under the Anti-Litter Act was during demonstrations when persons blocked the roadway with debris. I always wondered whether that was the real reason that act was passed. In any case, the Anti-Litter Act went out of existence in 1991. It was replaced by the National Solid Waste Management Act, which contained similar, if subdued, provisions.

Surely, it must have occurred to the powers that be that no locally produced beer or soft drink (glass) bottles were to be found anywhere littering the place. The reason for this was that they had value: you could return them to shops and the drinks trucks and receive cash on delivery. Yet, when plastic beer and soft drink bottles largely replaced glass bottles, no deposit was placed on plastic bottles. The result: we were soon inundated by mountains of plastic bottles - on the roadsides, in open spaces, in gullies, and floating out to sea.

Making those who market these products in plastic packaging responsible for getting them off the streets through a deposit-refund scheme is an obviously workable policy initiative; but the marketing companies resisted - they have political clout - and successive governments declined to enforce the "polluter pays" principle. Here we are: 50 years after Independence, drowning quite unnecessarily in plastic garbage.

colonial rules

In the bad old colonial days, the rules for stray animals were clear: stray small stock, usually belonging to small people, interfering with plantation crops could be shot on sight; stray cows and horsekind, usually belonging to the plantation owners, eating down small people's gardens could not be killed, but must be impounded, i.e. taken to an animal pound, where the owner could pay to get them back.

After Independence, most of the animal pounds were closed down, and large and small stray animals were allowed to roam free to graze. The residential area in which I currently live is visited daily by separate herds of cows and goats, which forage freely, unaccompanied by any herdsman. Goats and pigs wander about public spaces - like markets - with impunity. I saw a huge hog waddling across Washington Boulevard in June. Fifty years of Independence has changed nothing; if anything, it is worse. Landless farmers rule!

We long for the order and discipline of foreign lands to come to Jamaica, but often, we are unwilling to take the tough decisions which are necessary. Our sympathy for the landless poor stretches to allowing them to graze their large and small stock in the public roadways, open lots, and anywhere else they may wander in our urban areas. As a result, householders are forced to build fences and walls around their properties. Residential areas across the USA and Canada typically have no boundary fences or walls. Clearly, we have no such ambitions.

Over the next 50 years, we might consider changing our approach to stock-raising in urban areas. It is actually illegal, although widely practised. It should not be too hard, with sufficient public education and discussion, to confine stock-rearing to clearly zoned rural areas. It is heart wrenching to have to kill stray goats and pigs; but after the first few, their owners will get the message. This would allow our roadways and public spaces to be properly landscaped, with a wider, more representative variety of plants. Our urban areas would be much more beautiful places, with more trees and shrubs on medians and verges, and without the stray animals.

social engineering

To put an end to littering falls under the rubric of 'behaviour change' or 'social engineering'. It requires public education, public discussion, and multiplying the number of litter bins placed in public places.

Jamaicans overseas comply with the local culture and laws; we must create a new local culture of public cleanliness to match our culture of personal cleanliness. This must apply not only to the everyday grind, but also to concerts and jam sessions. It is alarming to see the huge volume of trash widely spread across a venue after an event. Let's have a song about that!

Hoping for voluntary compliance is good, but effective enforcement is definitely necessary. For best results, the appointment of litter wardens cannot be restricted to government employees. Hundreds (or is it thousands?) of honorary game wardens under the Wildlife Protection Act and fisheries inspectors under the Fishing Industry Act are appointed each year from interested members of the public (I suppose they should be called 'civil society').

After suitable training, they are given powers of search, seizure, and arrest without warrant. In my experience, women make the best enforcement officers. They tell the men in their lives - husbands, sons, brothers, nephews - to be careful: "I don't want anyone to say I am corrupt. Break the law, and I will be the first to arrest you." In truth, the men will do what is right because of the moral pressure brought to bear on them by their peers. Creating this 'moral pressure' is where the social engineering comes in.

Householders can be the most effective litter wardens, keeping their own neighbourhoods clean and litter-free. And as they wander about public spaces, they can do the same there. People must be made to feel that they are genuine stakeholders in a clean and beautiful Jamaica.

It is often said that the trees and shrubs planted in public spaces for beautification are stolen by passers-by for planting at home. A ubiquitous army of voluntary litter wardens could reduce this tremendously.

Various government agencies, and private individuals, too, must be encouraged to establish tree and plant nurseries to sell or give away planting material to beautify both public and private spaces.

Living in a beautiful environment will improve each person's self-image and build national pride. This would be a good goal to aim for during the next 50 years.

Peter Espeut is a Roman Catholic deacon and a sociologist.

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