The lockdown litterbugs

‘The enduring images etched in my mind after lockdown are not of nature nurtured but nature trashed, suffocating under mountains of litter’

Bright Green
Discarded face masks have become a common sight in the last few months (©Maureen McLean / Alamy Stock Photo)

Lockdown, according to numerous commentators, was a period when we all came to value our local open spaces, appreciating plants and birdsong which had previously gone unnoticed. I wish that was true. Sadly, the enduring images etched in my mind after lockdown are not of nature nurtured but nature trashed, suffocating under mountains of litter. Instead of revealing our love of beauty, lockdown laid bare the UK’s very ugly attitude to waste.

My local open space, Wandsworth Common in London, was typical. After the first warm post-lockdown evening it looked as though a spaceship had descended and sucked up all the people but left their belongings. The grass was covered with chairs, picnic equipment, plastic bags, pizza boxes, disposable barbecues, bottles and cigarette butts. These scenes were duplicated across the country. Forty-one tonnes of rubbish were cleared from Bournemouth beach after two sunny days. Whatever people brought with them, they simply dumped and left behind, including dirty nappies, and even, according to locals, human excrement in food cartons. Beauty spots were desecrated by a new fashion for “wild camping”—or fly camping as it is now called—where campers leave not only vast amounts of rubbish but also their tents and camping equipment. Surveying the shocking scene, the warden of one National Trust site said, “It looked like a bomb had gone off in an off-licence”.

Was this just temporary madness? Richard McIlwain, deputy director of Keep Britain Tidy, a moderate voice in the litter debate, thinks so. “We’ve been through a very unusual situation,” he says. “It was the first time we’d been confronted as a society with a universal threat. Social norms went out of the window.” This would be comforting if true but doesn’t chime with the facts. Those wild camping scenes were identical to the devastation seen at Leeds, Reading and other summer festivals in previous years where revellers walk away from their detritus and unwanted equipment. Nor is the UK’s rubbish problem confined to special events or gatherings. It’s endemic. Everywhere there are overflowing bins, abandoned mattresses on street corners and litter dropped in the countryside. And now, of course, we’re wading through discarded face-masks. “Britain is a filthy, littered country,” says John Read who set up Clean Up Britain, a more trenchant outfit than Keep Britain Tidy, a few years ago because the amount of litter made him “feel depressed, angry and ashamed”. He thinks we’ve gone way beyond keeping Britain tidy, pointing out litter has increased by 500 per cent since that organisation started. “We are the most littered country in the western world,” he says.

It’s not difficult to see what he’s talking about. In most European countries now, the roadsides are clear of rubbish. France’s verges for example are spotless. By contrast, some stretches of the welcome-to-the-UK motorways of Kent look more like roadsides in India. As well as food cartons and bottles hurled from cars, fly tipping is a major problem. In the last month alone there were 3,000 reports to ClearWaste, a new nationwide app that forwards independent reports of fly-tipping to local councils. Penetrate a little further into the countryside and what gets dumped and dropped defies belief. I volunteer with the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership (KSCP) and one day we did a litter pick on a small section of the River Stour. We barely made a start on the rubbish, but still filled eight large kayaks with traffic cones, shoes, food containers, polystyrene packaging, bottles of all kinds and a television set.

You’d have thought tackling litter would be a vote winner because all the research indicates that litter affects people’s quality of life, in particular their feelings of wellbeing and safety. Littered streets feel abandoned, consequently their inhabitants do too. Litter ruins people’s enjoyment of the countryside and beaches and turns open spaces into waste grounds. There is research suggesting that litter leads to increased street crime.

Hundreds of thousands of people regularly join litter picks across the UK, a sign that many feel passionately about it. Mel Green, one of the founders of the Whitstable Marine Environment Group, says large numbers of people take part in their litter picks “because they are perpetually pissed off and annoyed about the rubbish”. According to a survey by the Warwick Business School, 81 per cent of British people say seeing litter on the streets makes them frustrated and angry. And it’s not just people who suffer from the effects of rubbish. The
RSPCA receives more than 7,000 calls a year about wildlife ingesting and being injured by litter. Meanwhile litter works its way into the wider environment, polluting aquifers and ending up as permanent detritus in the sea.

Tackling rubbish is complex, especially as so much of the problem is structural, resulting from the massive amount of waste produced by the UK and how it is managed. Everything is swathed in unnecessary packaging. During lockdown, new customers were horrified by just how many layers of packaging online delivery companies used for even the smallest parcels. Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s partner, tweeted that she was “dismayed” at the amount of plastic used by Amazon. Many of the objects we use now are made from non-biodegradable material and destined for just one use. They don’t rot down. They remain in the system. Astonishingly, it is estimated that by 2050, plastic will outweigh fish in our oceans.

When I was growing up there were no outlets for fast takeaway food. Now the UK is the fast food capital of Europe, with far more people buying “food on the go” than other countries. These outlets are visible  culprits in the litter crisis. In the recent litter survey, 88 per cent of respondents named fast food detritus as the most common litter—with McDonald’s, KFC, Costa, Greggs and Tesco among the worst offenders.

Rubbish collection, or lack of it, compounds the problem. Bins for public use are   relatively scarce, and litter collection has become less frequent as councils promote recycling while cutting budgets for disposing of household and garden waste. Litter clearing is a huge strain on taxes. In 2014 an estimated £1bn was spent nationally. At a local level, clearing one bag of roadside rubbish costs £40 because of the required road closures and safety precautions. Now with some councils facing actual bankruptcy because of the Covid crisis, the situation is critical. They have to make choices between clearing litter and funding social care. But leaving litter creates a vicious circle. Once an area is strewn with litter, it attracts even more. 

As an active environmentalist, I’ve always been inclined to think these structural factors are the main problem and should be the main focus. If litter is the end of a process that involves production, consumption and disposal, the real solution is a zero waste society. Rubbish should be tackled at source with recyclability embedded into the packaging from the start.

But these post-lockdown scenes have focused my mind on the behavioural side of the problem. Under all the layers of wrapping there’s a core truth: some of the waste isn’t down to people—but an awful lot is. Two and a quarter million pieces of litter are dropped every day. The people dropping it expect others to pick it up or, worse, simply don’t care if it stays there. Mel Green says: “I’ve come to the conclusion there’s a vast swathe who just don’t care.” John Read agrees. “It’s a significant minority creating problems and the politicians are scared of confronting behaviour.”

Focusing on the structural causes can mean the immediate problem of our rubbish-strewn society is kicked into—or strewn about in—the long grass. And this is especially likely when you have a government lacking the will and backbone to act. The last three Conservative governments have shown themselves adroit at saying they will definitely get to grips with the problem—and then just not doing anything.

It was seven years ago that the government first considered the Deposit Return Scheme­—reverse vending machines which return a small deposit for empty containers . (This works fantastically well in Norway and Germany; 98 per cent of drinks containers are recycled and are never seen littering the streets.) After that first consideration, the idea languished for six years until October last year when the then Environment Secretary Michael Gove committed to “working with industry to see how we could introduce a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles”.

Since then there’s been no further action except that undertaken taken by a forward-looking supermarket, Iceland, which introduced its own system. And in another sign of how little the government cares, it opted not to transpose into law the EU Circular Economy Package, choosing instead to lag behind the EU when it comes to recycling. It’s this lack of purpose which leads environmentalists to fear that the Environment Bill due to become law in 2023 will not deliver.

When it comes to confronting litterers, the government has been pathetically feeble. In 2017, Theresa May launched a Litter Strategy which was about as meek and mild—apologetic almost—as it could be. It featured vague, wafty objectives such as “working with other litter groups” and encouraging people to share “their experience of what works to reduce littering”.

“It was a box-ticking exercise,” says John Read of Clean Up Britain. “It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.” In July there was clear evidence that this strategy—such as it is—has not been integrated into Government thinking: the recent Covid-19 related campaign encouraging people to “Enjoy Summer Safely’”missed a perfect opportunity. It was illustrated with a picnic in the park, but failed to remind people to take their litter home.

Challenging individual behaviour isn’t easy and divides campaigners. Keep Britain Tidy, started in 1954, has the iconic brand with over 90 per cent recognition of its man and bin image. But increasingly its softly-softly approach has come under question. Once funded by government, it is now an independent charity but it is still the government’s favoured partner in the Litter Strategy. Yet it no longer runs hard-hitting campaigns. Public information adverts are a thing of the past. Instead the emphasis in their campaign work is on fashionable “nudge theory”, using gentle hints to encourage bin use while thanking the active citizens who litter pick. “We can’t just shout at people,” says McIlwain.

No-one could accuse litter campaigns of shouting this summer. The Highways Agency has a soft, and patently false, nudge, “Take Your Litter Home. Others do.” Keep Britain Tidy opts for soft-centred positive reinforcement with “Be kind to your park” while its joint campaign with the government to “Keep it, Bin it” is, frankly, confusing. Should you Keep it or should you Bin it?

But others do want to shout. John Read says that litterers “think ‘I can behave how I want. I pay my taxes. It’s a free country. Anyway it keeps someone in a job’. This group doesn’t have an idea of collective social responsibility. These people need to know anti-social behaviour will have consequences.” Bigger fines and proper enforcement would increase the litterer’s sense of risk when he (and it usually is a he, aged 16-25) drops litter. “People don’t like the risk of losing money,” says Read. “The size of a fine can serve as a nudge on its own.”

There is compelling evidence that fines work. Countries with bigger fines have a much less serious litter problem. In Germany, the fine is 250 euros, in France up to 750. In Japan, an anti-littering message is drilled into school children and littering can be punished by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 10 million yen (£75,100). Some American states impose heavy fines—$10,000 in Massachusetts. By comparison, the UK’s £150 fine is laughable. As is the lack of enforcement. Recent Freedom of Information requests from groups such as the Whitstable Marine Environment Group have revealed that, unbelievably, 60 per cent of councils have either never issued a fine or issue as few as one a month. Clean Up Britain’s new campaign, “Don’t Trash our Future” calls, amongst other things, for increasing fines to £1,000 and mandatory requirement for all councils to enforce litter fines

Depressing though the current situation is, there are glimmers of hope. Canterbury council has started issuing fines based on dashcam evidence of people littering from their cars. And some councils have produced their own, much harder messages, such as Wandsworth’s “This is a park not a bin”. Solving the litter crisis will be difficult and will involve structural and behavioural changes but maybe, after all, the lockdown rubbish mountains will serve a purpose. Maybe they will nudge rubbish—finally—to the forefront of the political agenda.