#LitterWatch2017: Week 52

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What a year it’s been for Off the Ground! We ran our first major campaign, Love Chippenham, which saw us launch the Residential Bin Scheme, design a ChippenGo game to show a different side of Chippenham, create bespoke posters for local businesses, put chalk trails in local parks, and encourage residents to adopt their own patch to keep clean. One of our fantastic volunteers also started Refill Chippenham, getting a number of local businesses on board to help cut down to single-use plastic bottles; pop by any of the participating companies to refill your reusable water bottle. In addition to all this, we also ran a handful of community clean ups and I’ve kept the blog and social media going while working to get my own business off the ground.

Ticking along in the background has been #LitterWatch2017, a science experiment to show that litter doesn’t just disappear. It’s been an eye-opening project.

My original hypothesis was proven more or less wrong: I fully expected the paper products to turn into a mess, the cardboard to break into pieces, and the plastic to potentially break into smaller pieces as well. However, with the exception of a few items, everything stayed put. Keep reading to find out what happened.

  • Water bottle: The label on the water bottle was blown off after a few months, but the bottle itself remains; it’s just a little dented from the few times the board toppled over in high winds. If you caught yesterday’s blog post, you’ll know that we have found nearly 80 different types of water bottle in Chippenham. What makes this so frustrating is that there’s a fairly simple solution to significantly help reduce the amount of single-use drinks packaging: encourage people to carry reusable bottles, and start a deposit scheme.
  • Sandwich Wrapper:This paper-like product proceeded to shrink in the rain and sun throughout the year, but has been unchanged for the past several months. The food may be fast to disappear, but the packaging isn’t.

  • Fry Container: This cardboard carton for McDonald’s chips was a bonus piece I collected in late December last year. It was bright red when the experiment started, but has almost turned completely white over the year. Besides fading in the sun and some damage from the nail holding the carton in place, it’s still hanging in there.
  • Napkin: This is the only piece on the board that was deliberately removed as it had broken into too many smaller pieces to safely stay put. It still took nearly seven weeks for it to break down to such an extent.
  • Coffee Cup:One of my bugbears: at 2.5 billion a year in the UK alone, the sheer number of disposable coffee cups that get tossed away is simply staggering. These products cannot be easily recycled, and they tend to turn into two pieces of litter if thrown from a car. This particular cup has swollen in the rain, grown a coat of mould, and looks rather battered from a combination of sun and gravity (i.e. the board falling over) … but it shows no signs of disintegrating. The plastic lid is starting to crack a bit, but whether that’s due to becoming more brittle in the sun or gravity, I’m not sure. Either way, it highlights the problem of plastic getting into the environment: one piece can easily become many.
  • Crisp Packet: This item did disappear, or, more precisely, went missing in action. It was blown off the board in a storm, never to be seen in my garden again (apologies to neighbours for this accidental litter). However, before it vanished, it was proving to be more or less indestructible: the only damage was cosmetic, caused by fading in the sun. In addition to glass bottles, plastic bottles, and aluminium cans, this is one item I would like to see some type of return scheme for. Send in 10 crisp packets, get 50p off your next shop perhaps?
  • Cigarette butts: When it comes to litter, size doesn’t matter: cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, with approximately 4.5 TRILLION getting dropped. 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. While the paper filter and tobacco did wilt in the rain and weather, the filters themselves look brand new, indicating that 10 years is probably more accurate.
  • Cigarette Carton (without cellophane):The cardboard carton without its layer of protective plastic swelled and opened up in the rain, but other than being a little soggy, looks like it will be with me a little longer.
  • Cigarette Carton (with cellophane):There has been absolutely no change to the outer cellophane wrapper, and, much like the naked carton, the inner cardboard has swollen. The lid has fallen off at the hinge, leading to even more pieces of rubbish. This is another item I would love to see some type of return scheme for; return your old carton and get 5p off your next packet of smokes?
  • Tobacco Pouch: This item hasn’t really changed at all, perhaps faded a bit in the sun. It, and all of the smoking paraphernalia listed here, are incredibly common litter. Unlike many of the other products, it’s very clear who interventions need to be designed for: how to reach smokers and convince them that these products should be disposed of properly?
  • 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 it could be even lower: simply having a reusable bag that fits in a pocket or handbag, or can be left in the car to be used when needed, saves money and reduces plastic. This particular carrier bag shows no changes since it was put outside a year ago, except perhaps a light coating of mould.
  • Drinks Container: This is made of three items that usually break into their component parts when tossed from a car: cup, lid, and straw. As the cup swelled in the rain, the lid and straw had to be added to the board separately. Much like the coffee cup, the drinks cup grew some mould and got battered when the board fell over, but it’s still intact and holds water when it rains. The plastic lid and straw are more or less unchanged.
  • Standard Balloons: I put two rubber balloons on the board at the beginning of the year and while they have undergone a transformation of sorts, they are still present and accounted for. The first change to occur was that the material weakened, causing the body of the balloon to detach from the neck, yielding two pieces of litter for the price of one. The balloons then faded and shrivelled in the sun, changing texture to become quite hard.
  • “Biodegradable” balloon: The white square is a dove balloon I purchased online. It is advertised as safe for the environment and an alternative to dove releases. [Releasing both balloons and doves should be avoided at all costs!] However, besides gaining a coating of mould, it has not changed at all this year, and is a good reminder that things that are advertised as biodegradable often aren’t, or at least do not degrade in the amount of time people attribute to biodegradable items. Also, biodegradable does not equal invisible: litter sends a message that it’s okay to drop more, regardless of what something is made from.
  • 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. Even I expected this receipt to eventually turn to mush. However, it is actually coated with something so that although the text is no longer readable due to fading in the sun, the receipt itself is still in pretty good condition.
  • Aluminium Can: Although they can be easily recycled, aluminium cans are very common litter: over the past three years, we have found nearly 4000. They definitely need to be included in a deposit scheme, along with plastic and glass bottles, if we want to have any hope of meaningfully reducing litter and increasing recycling rates. This particular can is faded from the sun and battered by gravity, but otherwise unchanged.
  • 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. The wrapper and the easy-open top have faded throughout the year, but are otherwise unchanged.
  • Takeaway Container (Cardboard):I would love to see takeaway shops label or brand their containers so we can see where they are coming from. This particular container is made from stiffened paper or cardboard, and is something you might expect to break down more than it has this year. I certainly wasn’t expecting to still be more or less in the right shape. Like many of the other pieces, it’s grown a bit mouldy but is still going strong.
  • Takeaway Container (Polystyrene):This container got cracked when the board got knocked over during high winds, but shows absolutely no signs of changing. Consider throwing a few pieces of Tupperware in the car to use instead of taking one of these.
  • Plastic Bottle (with wrapper): In the sports drink category, Lucozade is the undisputed king. Unlike water bottles, it almost always has a label, and indeed, it’s this label that makes Lucozade a difficult item to recycle. This one has faded a bit, but remains more or less unchanged.
  • Sandwich Carton: This combination of plastic and cardboard is very common, especially within a 5-minute walk of local shops. This piece has faded considerably throughout the year, but is still present and accounted for.
  • Glass Bottle:Despite my initial thoughts that the paper label may come off, the glass bottle is relatively unchanged. The red has just faded a little and I can expect the bottle to be with me for the next one million years or so. Time for a deposit scheme perhaps?

Overall, gravity did more damage to the litter than just being outside. If you are planning to do your own LitterWatch experiment, I would recommend that items are either placed directly on the ground, or on a board that can be left horizontal. Badgers visit my back garden so I wanted to keep the litter away from them, but being on the ground will more introduce microorganisms to the rubbish as well, which may cause greater disintegration than my litter experienced this year.

Wondering what’s next for this rubbish? I am going to continue with LitterWatch2018, which will be a monthly check-in to see how the litter is getting on. Check out the photos below to compare Day 1 to now.

And what’s next for the blog in general? The big background project in 2018 will be diving into the statistics we collect after each clean up to show that litter counts. At the beginning of each week I’ll post a brand and ask that readers keep an eye out for it and report how many littered items they see. You’re also welcome to take a guess about how many items from a particular brand we found in Chippenham in 2017. So pop by tomorrow as I kick off Litter Counts with our very first brand. Here’s a hint: it’s red and white and littered all over.

In the meantime, have a very happy and safe New Year’s Eve!

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