Leaving Our Mark: What Litter Says About the UK

Archaeology tells the story of the past through the things left behind. Tools show how technology was adopted and disseminated. Jewellery made from materials that could only have been imported reveal distant trading connections. Burial goods can show social stratification or hint at religious beliefs. Pottery—the Tupperware of the past—can help indicate a particular time period through its style and decoration, and in turn this can be used to determine the date of an entire assemblage of artefacts.

The purpose of these studies is to piece together the material culture of those who made the remains to better understand how their society functioned. Was there a class system? What were their beliefs? How did the people who created these artefacts live and behave on a day-to-day basis? How were they similar—or different—from our society today?

I like to joke that my background as an archaeologist is what encouraged me to start picking up litter and launch Off the Ground five years ago. After all, what are artefacts but litter from the past?

Or, phrased another way, what is litter but future archaeological remains? This made me wonder what could be learned from studying the detritus left by today’s population. Unlike the artefacts often uncovered during an excavation, today’s rubbish is easy to read, in good condition, and plentiful. The picture it reveals isn’t pretty:

  • Britain is a nation of people with unhealthy eating habits, likely trending towards obesity. Crisp packets, sweet wrappers, packaging emblazoned with the brands of popular fast food restaurants, generic takeaway containers, and sugary drinks are some of the most common types of litter found. It’s not difficult to decipher the Nutrition Facts and ingredient list to see that the food and drink consumed by those who litter is on the calorific side and lacking in actual nutrients.

  • Britain is a nation of people who eat on the go. See above. Besides being unhealthy, this indicates that loneliness and isolation may be at play as people are not consuming food in social settings such as homes or sit-down restaurants.

  • Britain is a nation with an addiction problem. This covers a wide range of chemical addictions, all of which can be identified in the discarded items that can be found throughout our communities. Tiny plastic bags that once housed marijuana. Silver cannisters known as whip-its used for getting high on nitrous oxide. Empty pill packets of ibuprofen and other over-the-counter drugs. Syringes for the hard stuff. And alcohol … so many containers of alcohol. Off the Ground has recorded over 250 brands in the last five years. Then there’s smoking: cigarette butts are the number one littered item in the world, and the UK is no exception to this rule. Cigarette cartons, roll-up paper, and tobacco pouches provide additional evidence for the prevalence of this unfortunate habit.

  • Britain is a nation that has trouble staying awake. Vessels for storing hot liquid, i.e. coffee cups, are numerous along roadways, and aluminium cans for energy drinks are second in popularly only to alcohol.

  • Britain is a nation that wants to get rich quick. Discarded scratch cards are surprisingly common.

  • Britain is a nation of irresponsible dog owners. Either that or a portion of the population has a belief in what has been termed the “dog poo fairy”. This is a supernatural being who collects and disposes of bagged dog faeces from where they have been hung as offerings on trees, hedges, and fences. Evidence for this creature is, at present, non-existent.

  • Britain is a nation of abundance and doesn’t mind throwing away its cash. At least that is one way to interpret littering as a whole. The amount that it costs to clean up littered rubbish is estimated at nearly £1 billion a year for something that people choose to deliberately deposit outside of normal collection practices. Clearly this money is not needed for other things.

  • Britain is a nation that has no regard for the environment. There is a failure to connect the actions the society takes on a day-to-day basis with the bigger picture of global pollution. For example, litter thrown off a bridge in Wiltshire will eventually make its way to the sea. How can a country hope to solve the bigger problems it faces if it cannot convince its residents to put rubbish in a bin?

This isn’t the first time that the archaeological record has revealed looming environmental disasters. It is thought that the Maya’s skill at altering the landscape may have played a role in their downfall, and deforestation was one component that may have brought about the end of the civilisation on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The difference is that today we can see the damage happening in real time, outside of the history books and museums.

We cannot change the past: we cannot hop in a time machine to warn the residents of Pompeii or find the lost colony of Roanoke before it goes missing. We can, however, alter the future by the actions we take today … and every day thereafter. At the very least this means not littering and ensuring that friends, family, and neighbours are aware of the problems it causes.

Going a step further, it means assessing our own wastelines and figuring out where we can cut back on packaging and unnecessary purchases. Isn’t it time to live just a bit lighter on the planet and think about the message we want to send to future generations? Is it going to be one of learning from our mistakes and correcting our course to that of greater sustainability … or plunging full speed ahead into a mess of our own making?

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