I usually write an April Fools post to share on 1 April. Previously I’ve called attention to a “litterfree” Chippenham and last year I had a go designing anti-litter messaging. This year, however, I thought it was time to get serious. After all, litter may be foolish, but it isn’t a laughing matter: it kills wildlife, pollutes our rivers and oceans, blights our communities, and costs a small fortune to clean up.
It’s time that we put litter first so that we can see the last of it.
Back in 2016 I wrote my own litter strategy entitled Think, Speak, Act. It was a call for industry and government to recognise that litter picks were not a solution to littering. Rather, we as a country needed to be willing to approach things in a different way if we wanted to have any hope of actually stopping the problem in its tracks.
In the intervening five years, two things have happened.
First, litter remains as much of a problem as it ever was. Although the amazing volunteers in Chippenham and across the UK may have removed most of the “litter of ages”—those cans, bottles, and other detritus that lurk under bushes for decades—regular community cleans ups and solo litter picking show that fresh rubbish is constantly being added to the mix. You don’t have to look far to see that the behaviour of littering is firmly ingrained in the national psyche, with PPE-related rubbish now becoming as common as crisp packets and cigarette cartons.
Second, I have spent a lot of time thinking (and writing) about litter. And 2020 in particular was the year that I had the opportunity to speak about rubbish with people from across the country. John of Clean Up Britain. Ray from the North Devon Wardens and Annette from Clean Devon. Jason from Rubbish Walks. Mark of The Scarab Trust. Lee from the Eco Schools programme. Dave of Natural Apptitude (and the creator of Pooper Snooper). From the campaigners and educators to the activists and enforcement officers, I cannot thank you all enough for sharing your time and thoughts with me.
Chatting with everyone made several things clear. First of all, there is usually a lack of communication between different areas. We’re all operating in our own little silos and, in part, this “silofication” means that we are unable to use all of the tools at our disposal because, quite simply, we and our allies do not know that they exist.
On top of this, it appears that everyone is fighting the same battle: how do we get all of the tools that can be used to combat litter into play? It is only by taking advantage of the full arsenal that we have an opportunity to stop it. You may have seen Ian M. Mackay’s swiss cheese model making the rounds to explain how each step in the battle against coronavirus can help cut down on transmission:
It can be summarised as there is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackling a virus: a mix of actions are needed. In the same way, there is no silver bullet when it comes to addressing the problem of litter. Rather, we must layer our defences and recognise that a mix of approaches is necessary if we want to have any chance at success. That brings us to the action.
The solution to this requires mixing metaphors a bit: we do not necessarily have to reinvent the wheel … but we do have to make sure the wheel gets into the right hands. For example, I discovered in the course of my conversations that a local government official was completely unaware of the Eco-Schools programme. Ray introduced me to possible ways of extending enforcement powers. And Mark highlighted the power of networks to bring people together and make sure information gets disseminated.
The really big things that the country needs to tackle litter—the national campaign, the increased fines and enforcement, the Deposit Return Scheme—all of these are beyond our control as individuals to actually implement ourselves. We can campaign for them. We can sign petitions. We can argue for their necessity on social media. We can and must do all of this, and I know many of us are already doing so. But, ultimately, although we can do our best to influence, the final decision and timescale is out of our hands.
I’ve written previously about the false choice we’re usually presented with when it comes to environmental issues: we’re told we can pursue this type of top-down approach (i.e. government intervention) or we can follow a bottom-up strategy at the grassroots level. But what about trying to meet in the middle? How can we try to use our voices within our individual communities to bring about the change we desire?
I have ideas for how we can all take steps to act and amplify our message beyond the already converted of the anti-litter choir. Because this is what is needed if we want to STOP litter. That “full stop” in the Off the Ground tagline is not just a clever play on words: it’s what’s needed if we want to live in a clean UK.
Over the next 12 months, I will be sharing how we—the UK’s litter-picking army—can take our action a step further and build on the solid foundation of volunteering that is already in place. I will be posting on the first of every month, so please sign up to have it sent directly to your inbox, or pop back tomorrow to read the first instalment.