Littering—and the related subjects of dog-fouling and fly-tipping—can make the most mild-mannered person see red. People understandably don’t like their neighbourhoods or city centres strewn with rubbish, having to navigate a poo-filled park, or deal with illegally dumped items while trying to enjoy the countryside. I think we can all agree that there is nothing positive about these issues: the £1 billion pounds spent on cleaning up litter could be better used elsewhere (hello, NHS!), the suffering of wildlife could be avoided, and our communities, countryside, and shores could be safe and clean.
Taking all this into account, it’s no wonder that a lot of people, myself included, get angry when confronted with the rubbish in our midst. Yet it is where that anger is often directed that puzzles me.
I recently posted some photos on Twitter of Chippenham’s “Black Swamp”, an area near Monkton Park that is overflowing with cans and bottles, and it sparked a bit of outrage … towards Wiltshire Council for not doing anything about it. It is an area that needs to be professionally cleaned, as it doesn’t appear safe for us as private citizens to enter – but it’s not the Council who made the mess in the first place.
In other instances, it’s the brands and packaging that get blasted. Clean Up Britain asks whether the most littered brands should be required to pay for clean up, and I’ve had many people tell me that packaging needs to be reduced in order to cut down on litter. Personally, my dislike of certain sweet companies is growing—when you’ve picked up the 100th tiny, fiddly sweet wrapper, it’s hard not to feel some frustration towards whatever brand name is emblazoned on it.
Yet in all of these instances, the actual culprit—the person who tossed a bottle into the Black Swamp or the school children who leave a trail of Maoam or Starburst wrappers in their wake—tends to be overlooked. What is being done to target the root of the littering, the 62% of people who drop things in the first place?
Littering needs to be made socially unacceptable. People witnessed dropping rubbish need to be called out on it. It doesn’t have to be rude—a simple, “Excuse me, I think you accidentally dropped this” can potentially do the job.
My “Littering Bible”, a collection of research carried out by Zero Waste Scotland, discusses how people claim that they are not responsible for their behaviour when they’re drunk, which includes the litter they leave behind. Do we as a society really buy this? Do we want to encourage it?
Personally, I am a believer in zero tolerance and spot fines for those who are found littering, something that has been found to work in towns and villages around the country. Why should we as a society continue to pay to clean up after people who can’t be bothered to put their waste in the right place? After all, littering by its very definition causes unnecessary waste—of money, time, and effort for the Council to clean up after other people who should be responsible for themselves. So let’s constructively focus our anger where it belongs: at those who cause the waste in the first place.