As a rule of thumb, a law is only effective if the public is aware of it and authorities enforce it. That is true of minor crimes as well as serious crimes, but in the case of antisocial behaviour, such as littering, spitting and discarding waste in the street, there are norms of civil behaviour that should be as effective as any law.
As The National reported yesterday, Abu Dhabi Municipality has taken steps to stamp out such offensive practices through an awareness campaign designed to remind people of laws that are already on the books. The law specifies a Dh100 fine for spitting, Dh200 for throwing cigarette butts in the street and Dh500 for disposing of chewing gum or other waste like bottles, cans or paper.
The municipality has its work cut out for it. It is common to see pedestrians casually drop a sweet wrapper, or drivers toss a tin can out their windows, with little thought for their environs.
"Because we see that many people are ignoring all these fines and throwing things in the street and throwing gum in the street, we are just sending a big message for everyone in Abu Dhabi," said Khaleefa Al Romaithi, the director of the municipality's public health division.
As the weather gets better and people spend more time outdoors, it is a timely reminder. Nobody wants to be caught downwind from someone spitting in the street, and people who casually throw rubbish in the street are detracting from everyone's environment. A bit of self-awareness can go a long way to curb such behaviour.
But good intentions will only go so far as the nearest rubbish bin. If authorities are serious about reducing littering, there should be more public receptacles to dispose of waste.
Then there is the enforcement angle, which raises other questions. This law was already on the books - but still violated on a regular basis. How are authorities going to monitor litterbugs, and who is going to be responsible for issuing fines? If suburban and desert areas are included, where in some places there is an ocean of plastic bottles, bags and other rubbish, enforcement is a mammoth task indeed.
We should all care about public spaces, and take that tiny effort to properly bin rubbish. The fact that not everyone does means that a lesson is in order, and a fine is an effective teacher.