Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Litter: What's wrong with people?

A few case studies:

Beside me on the train the other day a well dressed woman was reading a paper and drinking a cup of coffee. Reaching into her smart black handbag, she pulled out a biscuit bar. She unwrapped it carefully and placed it, with particular care, open on the seat next to her so she could nibble as she read. Once the bar was gone, with as much attention as before, she carefully placed the wrapper on the floor. And when she’d read the paper, it too was placed on the floor. When the train pulled into Victoria, she stood up with her coffee and her smart black handbag, and strode off, leaving the wrapper and the paper where she had deposited them. A bin was less than four feet away from where she was sitting.

A stench of poo bags

The same morning, I walked and cycled my way to work through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, enjoying the fresh air, admiring the snowdrops now thriving, avoiding the rackety Egyptian geese who were having an argument by the Serpentine and trying not to notice the little plastic bags, knots tied at the top, frequently discarded in corners along the way. These bags are left by dog walkers; when their pets have done their business, they pluck a little bag from their pockets and carefully pick up the doings, tie a knot and rather than put them in the plentiful bins provided, leave these little stinky parcels for someone else to pick up.

Last night, I turned the corner of our road and stepped into a puddle. Two McDonald’s coke cups, and a cardboard holder, were festering in the murky water. I picked them up and put them in my own recycling bin before scrubbing my hands.

None of these cases is exceptional but I struggle to understand the mentality of these litterers. Certainly, in some parts of London public bins are kept unrealistically small in a futile attempt to deter fly-tipping but in none of the instances I've recounted was a shortage of bins an issue. And they all contribute to a street scene that can frequently be awash with litter.

It is, of course, true that since the economic crash in 2008 one of the budgets councils have been quicker to cut than most is their street cleaning costs. A quick trawl through cuttings reveals that councils from Manchester to Birmingham, Haringey and Harrow, Southwark and Brent, have cut these budgets. Resources are inevitably stretched, it is impossible for these cost savings not to have an impact; but ultimately this is a story about personal responsibility.

Overall, it is probably fair to say, that, over the last 15, 20 years, there has been something of a renaissance in the pride people feel about the public realm; many areas that were once down-at-heel and decaying have been rejuvenated and enhanced. The enormous growth in house prices - in some ways a terrible problem - has encouraged this as house-proud families have been priced out of affluent neighbourhoods and been forced to move somewhere cheaper, bringing with them a bit more money. The Heritage Lottery Fund has also played a major role with tens of millions of pounds being allocated to restore public parks to places of use and beauty, trying to place them firmly back into the heart of communities.

Yet, stubbornly, so many people seem to think it's reasonable to drop rubbish assuming it is the job of someone else to clean up after them. In their latest Local Environment Quality Survey of England (LEQSE), published in 2013, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign found that England overall had got cleaner in the last 12 months, with fewer 'of the places surveyed falling below an acceptable cleanliness standard'. But, when focusing purely on littering, it goes on:

'Litter is an issue which, as a nation, we care about and, unfortunately, there has been no statistically significant improvement in the number of places meeting the required standard in 2012-13.'

The report went on, saying 'there has been a marked increase in the number of places blighted by fast-food litter and that increase has continued this year with 32% of sites having fast-food litter on them, up 3% on 2011/12'. Food packaging waste thrown from cars whose drivers have visited 'drive-thru' restaurants, the growth of people eating fast food 'on the go' and smokers are all singled out for particular blame.

In an effort to put a price on how much this is costing the country to clean all this mess up, Keep Britain Tidy estimates the bill is £1billion a year for England alone, enough, they claim, to pay for '38,644 social care workers, 4,400 libraries or 33,200 nurses'. But regardless of cost there are a whole host of other reasons why tossing litter to the floor is a bad idea.

It causes immense damage to the environment, clogging up rivers, polluting seas, flora and fauna and threatening wildlife; every year the RSPCA only responds to more than 7,000 calls from the public worried about animals injured by discarded rubbish.

And it ruins Britain's streetscapes. A road covered in litter indicates a street for which some people evidently don't care.While littering itself may not be a major crime, this public lack of care, in turn, encourages further anti-social behaviour; crime, vandalism and graffiti. We all know all of this and yet it still happens.

In 2013, Zero Waste Scotland, published an interesting study on who exactly drops litter. Well, it would seem it would be all of us at one time or another:

'The evidence both in the UK and internationally suggests that everyone, or almost everyone, admits to having littered at some point, with the majority of people littering at least occasionally.'

Though there are some sections of society who are more likely to drop waste than others:

'Age - younger people litter slightly more than older people, and are more willing to admit to littering;
Gender - men drop slightly more litter than women do, and are also more willing to admit littering;
Smoking - not only are smoking-related items littered more frequently than most other litter items, but smokers also tend to litter more in general, compared to non-smokers'.

Interestingly, the report adds that the relationship between socio-economic factors and littering behaviour 'is not considering in the reviewed literature in sufficient depth to draw' any conclusions.

None of this, sadly, actually answers why so many of us think it's reasonable to drop waste. It may be an momentary unconscious act, a brief moment of thoughtlessness, a symptom of distraction. But it can often be symptomatic of someone who doesn't value their environment. This lack of consideration can really only stem from a lack of education, a failure to ingrain an innate sense of pride in the public realm, a determination to ignore the fact that it's unpleasant to allow public spaces to be squalid. And there is a failure to appreciate the offence and disgust littering can provoke in other people.

Too many of us evidently think tidying up after ourselves is beneath us; it's the job of some litter-wallah to clean up. Perhaps they think 'Hell, we're doing them a favour keeping them employed'.

Maybe it is about time we all accept our roles as litter-wallahs.

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