Civility, respect and responsibility

It was a beautiful sunny morning; unlike the previous three months, it was neither raining nor snowing. At 7:30 in the morning, there were already more than 20 cross-border commuters lining up for the public transport. On the same street “Place de la liberté”, there was a local bus waiting for the traffic light to turn green. We watched in disgust as four teenage girls opened its window and threw empty cartons of orange juice that landed in front of the queueing passengers. I got out of the queue and picked these up then gave them a disappointing look wondering whether they realised that they had just exposed publicly their uncivility. When I returned from the nearest bin, their bus had left and mine had arrived, and no one uttered a word.

I didn’t think twice; picking up that litter was an instinctive reaction. I didn’t expect or want recognition from anyone; however, if I see you removing a piece of rubbish left lying in a public place, I’ll definitely give you some words of encouragement. Littering is hazardous for our health and environment.

During my first two years in France, while in parks and playgrounds with my toddler, I used to pick up wrappers of snacks and boxes of juice and put these in the bin while asking myself whether it was the kids or their parents who littered.

Whose responsibility is it when children litter: parents or society?

We, as parents, have an immense responsibility and opportunity in educating our children to be respectful of people, properties and our environment. Our words and actions help shape our children’s values and behaviours. If they deliberately litter, we must tell them why this is unacceptable. (When my son was 3 years old, he said, “Mummy’s bag is a fridge and a bin” because I had water, snacks and fruits every time we went out and kept all wrappers till we found a garbage bin). If the parents litter, their children are likely to do the same, and this is a societal problem.

Is the onus on the society (i.e. governments, school, association, neighbours, families, etc.) to ensure that children don’t litter?

Although we learn values and behaviours from our parents, our society and cultural environment play an important part in making us “who” and what we are. If our teachers, politicians, relatives and friends reinforce the message at home that littering means being disrespectful and irresponsible, we grow up with an attitude that is averse to littering; otherwise, we get confused and may not appreciate the importance of collective duty of care for our global planet.

According to an Austrian activist living in Sri Lanka, Ms Carolin Baumgartner, different cultures have different attitudes towards nature. She reasons that in Europe and the USA there is waste management (bins everywhere, garbage collecting and recycling plants) unlike in Sri Lanka where there’s a lot of garbage throwing, plastic burning, turtle eggs eating or dolphin killing.

It’s not only the children and those in developing countries who litter. Sometimes, I take umbrage to the roadside litter, which is mainly recyclable plastic bags and beverage containers, in some places in Italy and France. Whether littering is cultural or not, it should be stopped through education at home and at school, effective government policies and programmes, and community involvement.

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