I had two novel experiences on Friday. First, I was able to just turn up for a litter pick without any need to consider the organisation, publicity, health and safety, disposal, or follow-up actions. Second, I saw what communities could look like without litter. Both were glorious.
The event in question was Turn the Tide Portishead’s coastal clean up. Special guests included Wayne and Koda, who are on an incredible mission to litter pick the UK’s coastline, and Natalie Fee from City to Sea, whose Refill Bristol initiative sparked our own Refill Chippenham. Their work has been instrumental in bringing about the recent announcement that the whole nation would be converting to a Refill scheme: people will be able to refill their reusable bottles with tap water for free from cafes and restaurants.
It was a beautiful sunny morning along the coast, and it wasn’t just the view that was different from our usual clean ups: the amount of litter that Jon and I found was practically non-existent. In Chippenham, we sometimes arrive for an event and find ourselves saying, “Oh, there’s not much here, they must have cleaned recently” … only for our volunteers to discover 35 bags of rubbish, a bicycle or two, and a traffic cone. But this area of Portishead was practically pristine. My eyes scanned the edges between the pavement and bushes where cans, bottles, and other detritus usually lurks, yet I could only turn up a Pay and Display ticket. The total amount of litter found between the two of us could easily fit inside one of the discarded bread bags we uncovered in a nearby park. [Secondary PSA: Bread is bad for waterfowl; check out the link for healthier avian treats.]
This resulted in an absolutely lovely walk and a very big question: why was this patch of Portishead so clean? I know that my sample size is limited, but a few things jumped out:
- Is it the demographics Portishead has 22,000 people to Chippenham’s 44,000. I’m not sure what the age breakdown is in both locations, but I can imagine if a place skews more towards the generation that grew up with the Wombles and a message of “put it in your pocket”, then this ethos will affect the how residents treat waste.
- Is it the binfrastructure? There were plenty of bins in both areas we walked, and all looked like they were maintained and emptied regularly. The social norm—you use a bin—was well established.
- Is it the lack of takeaway and convenience stores in the area? While there were two cafes at either end of the promenade, there wasn’t the same density of fast food outlets and supermarkets selling on-the-go products that we have in Chippenham.
- Is it how the area is used? This is very much a leisure space, and does not appear to be a cut through for students, residents walking home from town, or drivers getting from A to B. Both parks we regularly clean seem to be litter magnets for these reasons.
- Is it the local cleaning effort? Turn the Tide Portishead did a sterling job in turning out a large number of people on a Friday morning. The reverse of the maxim “litter attracts litter” tends to be true—areas that are kept clean often stay clean.
- All of the above? As mentioned in my 2016 Litter Strategy, littering is actually a complex issue and picking out any one reason is likely to be difficult. But whatever Portishead is doing in this area along the seafront, long may it continue!
This walk also reminded me that the current focus on plastic pollution is starting to obscure an underlying issue: litter is about people. Whether it’s a cigarette butt, coffee cup, or plastic bottle, there is a person on the other end who has discarded it. Changing the material to something less destructive is a step in the right direction, but stemming the tide from the source is absolutely necessary if we want to create a society that not only reduces the amount of waste it produces, but also demonstrates a respect for the environment through their everyday actions.