Published On: Thu, Dec 19th, 2019

The economic value of litter

Hilbert HaarBy Hilbert Haar

Litter irritates people – some more than others. The St. Maarten Pride Foundation has been fighting littering like forever on our island and still people feel no shame to leave a mess on – for instance – Mullet Bay beach after a joyful weekend of playful water-fun and (probably) serious drinking.

The pictures on Facebook, and at times in the local newspaper, tell the story: some people are just not born to clean up after themselves. But what if all that garbage had economic value? Would that change the dynamics?

This thought entered my mind after having lived in Asia for more than a year now. In Myanmar, formerly Burma, trash is everywhere. In Cambodia, the country where I currently live, the situation is better – but far from ideal.

I see little kids driving bicycles, diving into garbage bins and collecting plastic bottles and cans. Apparently, these items have a value, maybe not all that much, but enough to inspire an army of unemployed people and little kids to hunt for these treasures. They are in survival mode and any little bit of money they are able to make is gonna help their families to survive.

I also see street cleaners – in this country mostly women who look like they are way past their expiry date (and no offense: they are doing a hell of a job) – sweeping pavements and roads in a seemingly never-ending attempt to keep my city Siem Reap presentable.

After all these cleanup and recycling efforts there is still a truckload of garbage left behind on the streets. And after all these efforts, visitors remain appalled by what they experience as a dirty and unkempt environment. It’s a bit like St. Maarten, but then in the Far East.

If a littered environment has a negative effect on visitor-experiences, a non-littered environment must have the opposite effect. In other word, visitors – and locals as well – would feel much better if they did not have to face a littered environment. In this sense, litter has an economic – though completely neglected – economic value.

Visitors will be inspired to think more favorable about a clean place than they would about a place where they are disgusted by all the litter.

Punishing people for littering does not make a lot of sense. First of all, enforcing anti-littering legislation costs money. It also requires those responsible for such a law to act on violations. We all know that enforcement is one of the weak points of any system – be it in St. Maarten or elsewhere in the world.

What if we attributed economic value to litter the way we attribute economic value to plastic bottles and aluminum cans? What if we encouraged people to collect all that garbage from our roads and deliver it to a drop off point? What if we actually paid people a price per kilo to make these efforts?

Youth unemployment in St. Maarten is high, so there are a lot of youngsters around who could make a few bucks from picking up all that crap and deliver it to a drop off point.

The funding for such a scheme could come from the tourism marketing budget. The Friendly Island would become the Clean Island – and a lot of youngsters who are currently at times up to no good would find something useful to do with the time they have on their hands.