A relentless tide of cellophane, plastic, aluminium, cardboard and paper assaults the UK’s city streets, motorway verges and seashores.
It’s a problem the UK’s MPs receive more letters about than any other subject, and an environmental issue that, according to a 2007 Mori poll, troubles people more than climate changes.
It’s also a criminal offence – covered in Sections 87 and 88 of the Environmental Protection Act. The offence in question is leaving litter. But, though it obviously bothers people, does this rarely policed crime really matter in the grand scheme of things? We’ve come a long way since the Victorian era. Our city streets are no longer strewn with horse dung, nor home to open sewers, and London’s Thames no longer swims in human excrement.
Today, a relentless tide of cellophane, plastic, aluminium, cardboard and paper assaults the UK’s city streets, motorway verges and seashores. Even after clean-ups, cigarette ends, paper scraps and cellophane wrappers, remain like the scum on an emptied bathtub. US writer John Steinbeck remarked in the 1960s that American cities were ‘ringed with trash…. and almost smothered in rubbish’ and bemoaned the ‘boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much.’ Another American writer Bill Bryson – his descriptions of 1970s Britain revealed a fond affection for the quaint orderly lifestyle in these islands, so different from the developing consumerism of his US background – now finds himself chairing the Campaign to Protect Rural England, an ardent campaigner against the blight. According to Keep Britain Tidy reports, local authorities spend almost £1billion clearing litter from streets, parks, highways and public spaces every year.
Some of it is carried by the wind towards the sea. These bits of debris may then travel thousands of miles to become part of the trash vortex of slow degrading garbage in the Pacific Ocean. According to Greenpeace, ‘some plastics in the gyre will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw them away’. Researchers are still unsure how dangerous this may be to human health, but studies have shown plastics have a tendency to absorb the toxic substances found in water. As the ocean plastic disintegrates into minuscule fragments it is eaten by fish, and find its way back via the food chain into the human diet.
So, who drops litter? It would be nice to think litter dropping was the wrongdoing of a tiny minority. Yet varying reports say that between 38% and 62% of people admit to littering. For cigarette smokers the figures are even higher. Social psychologists testing the likelihood of people to litter found that a littered street establishes a norm; those handed flyers by devious researchers were more inclined to drop them than wait for a bin in direct proportion to how littered the street already was. Surely then, the authorities are right to maintain a policy of regular street cleaning, despite the massive costs?
And, uncollected litter may lead to increased crime rates. Dutch researchers Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg set out to test the ‘broken windows’ theory – the theory that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behaviour trigger more disorderly and petty criminal behaviour, thus causing the behaviour to spread, and neighbourhoods to decay along with the quality of life of their inhabitants. Their experiments showed that people were more likely to steal an envelope containing money poking from a letterbox in a littered alleyway than an unlittered one.
There is also a clear correlation between employment figures and the extent of littering in an area. In a neighbourhood where chewing gum pockmarks the pavements scattered with the waste from shops and take-aways, and the overfull bins disgorge themselves at regular intervals, people live with little sense of community, or personal social responsibility.
So, what can be done? A March 2015 House of Commons Report claims that the three main categories of litter are smoking related materials, fast food, and chewing gum, and recommends that fast food companies be required to take more responsibility for the perimeters where fast food is sold, and that chewing gum producers put anti-litter warnings on their packaging, as well as pay for the cost of removal. Smoking is trickier. Some councils refuse to work with the tobacco industry; requiring them to provide ashtrays and bins could be seen as endorsement of the vice. The report also calls for a national campaign to raise awareness. Attention should be paid to the findings of psychologists though. An award-winning 1970s US poster campaign featured a Native American shedding a tear at the garbage everywhere. The slogan read ‘It’s a crying shame. People start Pollution, People Can Stop it’. However psychologist Robert Cialdini points out the normalising effect of the poster’s slogan. If people feel many people are doing something, it seems more acceptable to do the same. Articles drawing attention to recycling and litter problems frequently feature photos of piles of rubbish. Does this do just what Cialdini is suggesting? According to Cialdini, people respond to environmental campaigns when the undesirable behaviour is shown to be rare and disapproved of.
Recycling has increased due to awareness-raising, and surely recycling and litter prevention go hand in hand? We need to foster a sense of belonging and responsibility in our communities. However, we may well be experiencing the birth pangs of far more serious environmental problems as the effects of climate change steadily escalate. The connections between consumerism, wastefulness, and catastrophic climate change are all too apparent. If we want to raise environmental awareness globally, maybe the local community is where it all starts?
Photograph by Carole Allsop