Is the UK the litter lout of Europe?

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Compare two major roads on either side of the English Channel.

One, the RN 27, linking the port of Dieppe to Rouen. The other, the A27, a major arterial route that runs from Pevensey in East Sussex to join the M27 in Hampshire.

Anyone familiar with both will have noticed the contrast in the level of litter on roadside verges. A stretch of the A27 outside Brighton has been dubbed by the Mirror ‘One of Britain’s filthiest roads’, with plastic bottles, drink cans, fast food packages and plastic carrier bags decorating the side of the carriageway. Visitors disembarking from the Newhaven ferry and driving north on the A26 have an early introduction to the shaming Great British Litter Problem, with plastic sheeting draped over roadside trees, and other detritus blown from lorries servicing the waste facilities in Newhaven.

It’s not that Sussex roads are particularly unusual in having trash scattered profusely across their verges. The problem is a national one, and not limited to roads. All public spaces have suffered a tsunami of litter over the years, and many much-loved and iconic landscapes – the South Downs among them – have not escaped their share of left-behind rubbish.

Litter-loving Britons

So why do we do it? Are we really a nation of ill-disciplined litter louts, caring far less about our environment than our continental neighbours? The statistics certainly tell a pretty horrifying story. 1.3m pieces of rubbish are dropped on UK roads every weekend, and the amount of litter has increased by 500 percent since the 1960s. In spite of the decrease in smoking, 226 million cigarette butts are discarded on Britain’s streets every year.

Photo credit: ITV

Littering is not victim-free. It affects every one of us, both directly through our pockets, via the drain on national finances and those of cash-strapped local governments, costing the British taxpayer £500m annually and rising, and on our health. The rat population has grown to an estimated 60 million in the past few years, allegedly due to the rise in discarded fast food packaging. Both farm animals and wildlife suffer sometimes appalling injuries from empty drink cans and plastic wrappers thrown into fields: the RSPCA received 8,092 calls between 2019 and 2020 about animals being injured or caught up in general litter.

Any local councillor will report that littering tops the list of complaints that they receive from the general public. Which seems counter-intuitive. Because surely it can’t just be a tiny minority generating this vast tide of roadside rubbish? And if the majority of us are guilty of dropping the occasional drinks can or fag packet, why do we then complain about the result?

Apparently because we find it difficult to admit to littering; guilt and social shame drive us to deny it to ourselves and to others. In countless surveys, only a minority of the British public are prepared to own up to littering. We are more likely to feel indignant if we see someone dropping rubbish in an environment that we value but not draw conclusions about our own behaviour in other settings. Effectively: ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

Centralised decisions make for poor results

Over the years, UK policy-makers have come up with endless different schemes to tackle the problem, none of which have had more than a superficial and short-term effect. But a dig through the rubbish tip of official reports does offer possible clues to some of the underlying causes. The comparison between continental European and UK roadside verges highlights one in particular: centralised vs localised decision-making.

France is often perceived by the British as the ultimate model of a centralised state, quite wrongly in many respects. In fact it has a strong tradition of localism, of civic pride, of communities represented by elected mayors whose powers to set a local agenda could only be dreamt of by the chair of any parish council or town council in the UK.

In contrast, centralised power has grown exponentially in Britain under both Labour and Conservative post-war governments. Local authority budgets have suffered a 26 percent reduction in the last 12 years and many now struggle to deliver even their statutory duties. Cleaning up roadside verges doesn’t come high on the list, evident in the reduction in funding for cleaning roads other than major highways by over £74m between 2010 and 2014.

“If someone drops a bottle on a street in a city, someone is paid to pick it up. The chances of a bottle in a hedgerow being collected is almost zero”, CPRE’s Samantha Harding told Countryfile in 2019.

The ability of local communities to make decisions critical to their environment has been almost entirely removed. Margaret Thatcher’s positioning of the individual against society, and the selling-off, downgrading and privatisation of public spaces have all contributed to a general sense of powerlessness and disillusion. Private space becomes valued over shared community environments, and personal responsibility for the health and appearance of public spaces like parks and town squares diminishes.

An attitude often voiced is, ‘I pay my taxes, why shouldn’t someone else clean up my litter if I drop it?’ Local authorities face a litany of complaints about the poor provision of litter bins in public areas on social media. Rarely does any poster suggest that people take their rubbish home.

Community works

An example of what can be achieved when there’s a real will to tackle the problem comes from across the Atlantic. Concerned about the trash on their beach a seaside community in Oregon put up a large wooden sign at the entrance with holes drilled into it. Each hole contained rolled up heavy duty used plastic bags. People were asked to use a bag as they walked to gather any trash they might find. Local cafés also offered a free beer to tourists who brought in a full bag of litter from the beach. The community now boasts the cleanest beaches in the United States.

None of this is to downplay the many brilliant local and national initiatives in the UK, from David Sedaris’ one-man litter-picking crusade to Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British Spring Clean.

But seen from a different perspective, Britain’s tide of rubbish seems to be symptomatic of so much else that ails this country at the moment. It’s difficult not to conclude that only wide-ranging and fundamental change will clean up both our national streets and our national politics.

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