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 reports, 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.
- Crisp Packet: These are made from polypropylene and cannot be recycled in the UK at present [Edited August 2019: Some brands have started to collect these for recycling; check the packaging for details]. Based on what I’ve seen while collecting litter, they are practically indestructible.
- 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 at a shop 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 [Edited August 2019: The tally is up to over 5500]. 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 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.][Edited August 2019: You can see every week of LitterWatch2017 by following this link. Interested in running your own LitterWatch experiment? Please get in touch for information!]