I’ve been involved in the world of litter for almost ten years now, and I thought nothing would surprise me anymore. The weird and wacky finds that pop up on litter picks.* The amount of recyclables that get chucked aside day in and day out. The sheer number of energy drink brands in existence.** All of these are old hat by now.
But I have to admit I never thought I would see litter and fly-tipping treated as a Hail Mary pass. There is no other way to interpret the government’s latest announcement that they would be cracking down on anti-social behaviour.***
Based on the reaction I’ve seen on Litter Twitter, many of my fellow litter pickers feel the same way.
Why are we so negative? It’s not just our political bent, although more on that later. Rather, anyone who has been involved in litter for a few years recognises that the problem is one of planning, or rather the lack thereof. It’s a headline without a concrete action plan or strategy to go along with it.
If the goal is to genuinely reduce the amount of litter within our communities, then it’s necessary to stop litter before it happens. How does the government plan to reach those who are likely to litter before they actually do so? Where is the long-term educational component, rather than quick and dirty election-cycle thinking? Where is the carrot to complement the stick? Where is the recognition that cultural change is needed?
There is a lot of research on litter, and I feel I’ve at least skimmed through most of it. Where is the focus on rolling out interventions that are known to be effective? For example, many of those who are likely to litter are young men; they are known to have a dislike or distrust of authority. Why isn’t more being done to focus on in-group policing and role models? When are politicians going to look beyond clean ups and the photo-op that comes with posing in hi-vis jacket on a litter pick?
The recent announcement focuses on increased fines and making the perpetrator clean up, but it doesn’t matter what the consequence is if it’s not going to be enforced in some way. When we started Off the Ground almost a decade ago, Beverly, my partner in crime, asked Wiltshire Council how many on-the-spot fines had been handed out in the county. The answer was zero. In theory, a larger penalty should make it more worthwhile for the fine to be issued in the first place from a cost recovery standpoint, but the fact remains that litter enforcement relies on evidence. Without using technology like CCTV or LitterCamAI, it’s difficult to see how fines will actually be handed out.
Of course, the elephant in the room is politics. It could be argued that we litter pickers are getting what we asked for, so why are we moaning about it?
Well, it’s hard not to feel cynical when the current government has had 13 years to address the problem in a long-term, thought through, and strategic way. Instead, this announcement reeks of distraction from the cost of living crisis, various Tory scandals, and the economic crash brought about by the autumn Prime Minister. How can we not think it’s simply a ploy to gain votes in local elections and in the next general election? After all, nothing can unite both sides of the political spectrum like litter and potholes.**** In my experience, these are topics even the most mild mannered person can find themselves getting worked up over.
However, I would like to think most of us recognise that the current announcements are just empty promises and hollow threats, designed not to benefit the country, but rather an attempt to knock the dents out of a bruised and battered reputation.
But hey, I’m happy to be proven wrong. Number 10 is free to get in touch if it is serious about stopping litter. I have a 10-year plan already written that’s available for any party to implement.
* The strangest things we’ve found so far is a toilet seat and a plastic Halloween skeleton.
** If I remember correctly, I think our current tally is over 150 brands.
*** As an aside, it’s not clear how this differs from the 2017 announcement that doesn’t appear to have been implemented.
**** I started drafting this post earlier in the week, so I’m not at all surprised about this other announcement. Litter and potholes are hot button topics, and Rishi Sunak is pushing them for all he’s worth. Which is a lot.