Tidy Streets Are More Than Simply Cosmetic

While travelling in Peru this month, my thoughts were drawn back across the other side of the world, to make comparisons with things I have seen and experienced. One constant I have noticed during my month of travel in Peru is the cleanliness of the streets and the care that is taken to keep towns tidy. While the outskirts of cities can be steaming refuse tips, litter is virtually absent in the main areas and armies of uniformed street cleaners work around the clock to keep towns spick and span. I even saw a man with a broom and bucket of detergent mopping gutters in a busy city square. Brushing gutters and picking up rubbish that has blown into parks and pavements, these workers take pride in the role they play in their maintaining their town. They would seem to realise that clean streets are not only attractive and provide a good impression for visitors, they make better places to live for the people who call these towns home.

We discussed this subject over dinner a few times in Peru and I was told that it would be considered unthinkable to drop litter in the town centre. Why would I do that, when I could find a bin or even take it home in my pocket, my Peruvian friends told me. Contrast this attitude to Serbia and Bosnia, where so many streets are used as fly tipping zones, where plastic bottles and bags litter roadsides and where town centres are scarred by carelessly discarded newspaper, fast food wrappers and cigarette packets. On my visits to the Balkans, I am often amazed by the amount of paper, plastic and worse littering the streets.

Mindless littering is inexcusable and unnecessary. It signifies a lack of care, consideration and responsibility on the part of the person dropping the litter. There is always a better way of disposing of your rubbish. Fast food outlets are a major contributor to the problem, as people eat on the street and then screw up their packaging and toss it under a bench or over a fence, but the choice of disposal remains with the consumer.

It is easy to dismiss the litter and general rubbish that is dumped on the streets in Serbia and Bosnia as a sign of a deeper malaise, passing it off, as I am often told, with ‘we have far bigger problems to deal with’. That is undeniably true: the Balkan states do have a lot to contend with, but having major issues of corruption and inner turmoil is not an excuse for failing to tackle issues such as social responsibility, environmental protection and civic pride. Indeed, it has been argued that the worse the issues facing a country, the greater the need for such seemingly trivial matters to be addressed there.

Civic pride can take many forms. One of the most visible signs that a society has lost interest in caring for its environment is when the streets are filthy, litter piles up in gutters and on verges, and the walls are sprayed with graffiti. The cause can go much deeper, though.

In Britain, inner cities have been especially prone to this, of course, where social conditions have contributed to the lack of concern for the environment that must support all people living there. Once it starts, the rot sets in quickly, with people adding to the litter mountain without a second thought. Thankfully, some localised social measures are addressing this issue and results are being seen, with people caring more for the world close around them.

For me it is hard to comprehend what it is that moves someone to throw away their rubbish whenever and wherever they chose. How can they assume that someone will pick it up, or think that as there is already so much rubbish there, what harm could a little more do? How little pride and respect does someone have in their environment to trash their own streets?

Next time you unwrap a chocolate bar, finish a pack of cigarettes or empty one of those over-packaged burgers, consider how you would feel with a pile of discarded cartons in your own front garden before carelessly tossing it aside. We all have a responsibility for the environment in which we live. Let’s take care of it.

Marcus Agar has been commissioned by Wannabe Magazine to write a series of observational reports. Click to read in Serbian or for an interview in English or Serbian.

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