#LitterWatch2017: Week 0

As a child, I participated in science projects from a young
age. Each year the experiments became
more complex: I started with exploring whether the brand of batteries affects
their lifespan (it does), and eventually made it all the way to the state science fair one year by investigating
whether environmental pollutants affected the regeneration of Dugesia tigrina, a type of flatworm
(they do). All of these projects
imparted two things to me: 1) always be curious and ask questions, and 2) don’t
underestimate the importance of the scientific method. This process of
problem—hypothesis—experiment—results—conclusion has served me well whether I
have applied it to scientific research or archaeological essays, so it’s
probably no surprise that I have been mulling over how to apply it to litter.

As a result, I am kicking off this year with an experiment:
what actually happens to rubbish once it is abandoned outside? After all, litter doesn’t just
disappear! I have put together a board
of some of the most common items of litter we find and will be photographing it
once a week so we can see what changes, if any, it undergoes. Have a look at
what’s been included in this collection:

  • Water
    bottle:
    Since we started recording the brands of recycling we find, bottles
    of water have been high on the list: 67 different types or brands have been
    recorded thus far. This doesn’t count the numerous plastic bottles that have
    lost their label and are recorded as unknown.
  • Sandwich
    Wrapper:
    These waxy bits of paper (?) are common not only with Subway
    sandwiches, but also fast food burgers.
  • Napkin:
    And the related litter of tissues are fairly common. I think the logic is that
    thin paper will disappear quickly, so isn’t a concern from the point of view of
    being litter. However, it still makes quite a mess!
  • Coffee Cup:
    As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made clear in last year’s War on Waste
    programme
    , coffee cups are not generally recyclable. [As an aside, if you’re
    looking for a decent reusable cup, I quite like those by ecoffee; made from
    sustainable bamboo fibre, they come in a variety of designs and can be popped in the
    dishwasher (just don’t microwave them!)].
  • Crisp
    Packet:
    These are made from polypropylene and cannot be recycled in the UK
    at present. Based on what I’ve seen while collecting litter, they are
    practically indestructible. Zero Waste Week has some suggestions for how you
    can re-use them
    .
  • Smoking
    Paraphernalia:
    When it comes to litter, size doesn’t matter: cigarette butts
    are the most littered item in the world. This is a collection of some of the
    most commonly found items: cigarette cartons (with and without the outer
    cellophane), a roll-up pouch, and cigarettes ranging from just the filters to
    the whole thing. Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a type of
    plastic, and reportedly can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to break
    down.
  • Cardboard
    Carton:
    Almost every piece of litter on this board is brand new as I wanted
    to make sure they were exposed to the elements for the same amount of time.
    This was a bonus piece I picked up and is in decent shape, but it was outside
    for a day or two.
  • Carrier
    Bag:
    Since the introduction of the plastic bag fee, the number of carrier
    bags used in the UK has decreased
    . This is great, but could be even lower: I
    quite like re-usable Onya bags as they fold up quickly and can be attached to anything
    or stuffed in a handbag so that they’re always onya when you need a bag.
  • Drinks
    Container:
    This is made of three items that usually break into their component
    parts when tossed from a car: cup, lid, and straw.
  • Balloons:
    I have two types of balloons on the board: the brightly coloured ones are basic
    party balloons I grabbed in town, and the white square is a biodegradable dove
    balloon
    I purchased online. It is advertised as safe for the environment and an
    alternative to dove releases. In my opinion, releasing both balloons and/or doves
    should be avoided!
  • Receipt: There
    is often a snowdrift of receipts around ATMs, and I think much like napkins and
    cigarette butts, there is the feeling that they will break down very quickly.
  • Aluminum Can: Although they can be easily recycled, aluminum cans are very common
    litter: over the past two years, we have found over 3000. And Coke is
    definitely champion in Chippenham, being the most popular brand of carbonated
    beverage we find.
  • Sweet
    Wrapper:
    The purple glow of Cadbury is an incredibly common litter find,
    and their “easy tear” top adds to the rubbish. Of course, it’s not just
    Cadbury: Haribo, Maoam, and other makers of sweets and treats all have
    packaging that is usually found when on a rubbish walk.
  • Takeaway
    Containers:
    I have two types here to test: a paper-based carton and a
    classic polystyrene clam shell. I would love to see takeaway shops label or
    brand their containers so we can see where they are coming from.
  • Plastic
    Bottle (with wrapper):
    In the sports drink category, Lucozade is the undisputed
    king. Unlike water bottles, it almost always has a label.
  • Sandwich
    Carton:
    This combination of plastic and cardboard is very common within a 5-minute walk of local shops.
  • Glass
    Bottle:
    I couldn’t figure out how to attach the bottle to the board, so it
    will sit next to it, and I expect it to be pretty much unchanged by the end of
    the year, although it may lose its label.

My predictions are that the paper products will go first,
turning into a runny mess, followed by the cardboard breaking into pieces eventually.
Some of the plastic items I think will also break into smaller fragments, but
will be more or less the same at the end of the year. Everything else is a bit
of a mystery, so I will be watching this with interest to see how it breaks
down – follow along with me using the hashtag #LitterWatch2017 on Twitter,
Facebook, or here on the Rubbish Walks blog.
Also, fingers crossed the board survives a year outside!

[I feel I should issue the caveat that this is not in any
way scientifically rigorous. Litter tends to lurk under hedges and in the high
grass, and this collection will be exposed to everything the British weather
can throw at it. I’m also not sure how being on a board or having a nail
through it will affect the results, but I did not want to place items directly
on the soil as we have badgers that visit the back garden, and staking rubbish
out in the front garden is a bit too extreme even for me.]

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