Here in Britain, we have a serious litter complex. Take a stroll through any inner-city neighbourhood or suburban high street and you will see it: takeaway boxes, crisp packets, crushed drinks cans, and worse are clogging up our gutters and pavements. 90% of people know littering is a massive issue, while 81% of us get angry when we see the mess, according to a recent Populus survey. This begs the question, if we know it’s wrong, why do we keep doing it?
In 2015, US writer, humourist, and UK resident David Sedaris told a committee of MPs that: “I have never seen anything like this in Japan or France. It’s obviously a cultural problem.” He went on to point out that the country’s fines for littering were only £70 (now £75 at the time of writing), whereas the same offence in the state of Massachusetts would set you back around £6,600.
This one observation finds an immediate flaw in our country’s policy towards littering — we’re more reliant on the council clean-up, which often can’t cope, when we should be stamping out the issue and making it unacceptable. Being reactive rather than proactive is quickly leaving us with the foulest streets in Europe. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the things we should be doing that go beyond the current fight against litter.
Setting an example through community action
This article from Brushtec highlights the success that Rwanda has had with their principle of ‘umuganda’, where cleanliness is seen as a point of national pride. While we might not have that outlook here, it’s undeniable that the lawful community clean-up days of the African country take care of littering on a much more limited budget than we have in the UK. Furthermore, the fact that locals are responsible for the decluttering operation means that the same people are much less likely to litter in the first place.
We should look to adopt an outlook more like the people in Rwanda. When litter is dropped, it’s the local community that suffers. Even though it might not be a fair deal, it is these people that need to tackle the problem straight away. LitterAction is an important organisation that helps people to set up or join local litter-picking groups. If more of us used their service to take action in our local communities, we would not only have cleaner streets, but we would set an excellent example for the younger generation.
Place more responsibility on the businesses who supply litterbugs
While the majority of the blame for littering lies with those who do it, there should be more responsibility placed on the businesses who sell the packaged goods that do the damage. Keep Britain Tidy undertook research in 2015 that revealed the five most littered items were smokers’ materials, confectionary wrappers, bottles and cans, fast food packaging, and snack packs — items available from supermarkets, corner shops, and takeaway restaurants.
There is a lot that these businesses can do on the front line to combat littering, such as using smarter packaging, creating signs, and providing bins outside their shopfronts, but they should also be encouraged to contribute on a larger scale too. If they were to support local action groups or make a voluntary agreement to improve waste practices, like the Courtauld Commitment, they could make a positive change and improve their public image.
The UK government could still do more to help businesses clean up their act, too. While the recently introduced charge on plastic bags has reportedly led to a 6 billion drop in the number of them being used, adopting a deposit scheme on things like drinks containers could also go a long way to keeping them off our pavements. Something like Canada’s Return-It scheme, where shoppers pay a deposit that is only returned when they bring back their empty bottles, cans, and cartons for recycling, would be a huge step forward.
Improve our preventative measures
As David Serdaris pointed out, our fines for littering are not high enough. Not only can most people afford them without much of a problem, but they are way too low to act as an active deterrent. If we look to a country like Singapore as an example, where steep fines are backed up by the thousands of plainclothes police officers who can issue them, we see the exact opposite. Though these measures are authoritative, they certainly have results — Singapore is the highest placed city in Asia for quality of living according to Mercer’s rankings.
Improvements in litter infrastructure, such as providing more bins on the street and having more convenient places to recycle on the go, could also play a big role in reducing the amount of rubbish left lying. Additionally, the government could carry out research into the most effective places to put bins, as well as explore ways to bring down the costs of emptying and processing the waste.
Taking these three things into account, there is certainly much more that the people, businesses, and government in the UK can do to target littering. The time to take action is now, before we get a reputation for being one of the worst litterbug nations in the world.