Arriving in London after a year felt somewhat magical. The skies outside Marylebone station were overwhelmingly blue and the air felt fresh. ‘No Littering’ signs and recycling icons decorated red bus shelters and lampposts. I waited for the bus, this time accompanied by not just one, but a variety of colour coded litter bins. What an attractive city I thought to myself. A perfect picture or merely an illusion? I was still aware I was seeing London through the eyes of blissful tourists.
The picture became quite different after a few days. As someone who spends a lot of time in my local neighbourhood, it didn’t take long to be reminded of how prevalent littering is, and how casual it is for people to leave coffee cups behind on trains and shove crisp packets in roadside hedges. Fly-tipping is the most personally offensive. It is quite ordinary for me to see pavements around Golders Green plagued with soiled mattresses and damp furniture. On my weekly walk to the Golders Green library I walk past the corner of Hodford Road, which is probably the most common dumping corner in the area. I have seen mattresses stay there for weeks before being removed, only to be replaced with a whole host of junk, including mouldy fabric and broken bits of furniture.
On hot days, the parks I run through have mounds of filth rotting beside the overflowing bins. Golders Green and Basing Hill parks are both popular spots for revellers hoping to bask in the summer sunshine but they leave rubbish strewn across the fields. Under the trees in Basing Hill park you’ll be guaranteed to see disposable bags of dog poo. Go to Golders Green park on a sunny day and you’ll have a good chance of seeing rats rummaging through rotten waste. When things are this bad, they are of course a hazard to the health and safety to the many people that use these parks. There are two schools within walking distance from both parks – one being a primary school. This means that these kids, on a daily basis, walk past germ infested soiled mattress, mould spores, rat chewed food and bits of broken furniture – including glass and splintered wood. Keep Britain Tidy’s 2013 litter survey also listed mental health and wellbeing, road traffic accidents and even crime rates as negative impacts of waste.
David Sedaris, a comedian and dedicated litter campaigner, has repeatedly shed light on the connection between mental wellbeing and public litter, lamenting that ‘it is bad for the spirit to walk through filth’ and asking ‘why should everyone live in a teenagers’ bedroom?’. I know that my little brother can relate to his level of frustration. As a scout and someone who often plays at the Millennium Green, my brother is disappointed by how little has been done to address this issue, as many of his scout days involve him going to this park to physically clear up the take-away containers left by other people. Unfortunately, many of these culprits include school students who order food to be delivered to the park. They leave their plastic bags and empty coke cans scattered across large areas, not even attempting to organise their rubbish in a responsible way.
Quite often, I have seen members of Barnet’s street cleaning team in action to bring these parks to a high level of cleanliness. This is a great effort, but the aim should be to empty the borough’s litter bins before they become full and have become the homes of maggots, cockroaches, rats and other grim wildlife. I have also noticed that even when the bins are empty, people will continue to litter. Of course I find this infuriating.
After sharing these concerns with my local MP, I was told that the local council is in the process of awarding a new parks furniture contract which should replace damaged bins. I was also told (and was already aware) that both parks are attended by litter teams from Monday to Friday and are included in weekend litter routes.
Yet this simply is not enough. Including more bins in the park and ensuring that these are emptied regularly is a start, but ultimately we need to find ways to INSPIRE people to be more conscious about their waste footprint. People need to understand the effect that litter has on the economy, health and wellbeing of people, as well as the environment.
Our nation has turned in to a mass of litterbugs with 62% of people in England dropping litter, costing us almost 1 billion pounds every year. Local authorities are able to hand out fines for those they see dropping litter, yet this is not a widespread practice. According to Keep Britain Tidy’s 2016 annual report, there were only 2,000 convictions out of 825,000 reported cases of fly-tipping in the UK. With such poor rates of punishment for these environmental violations, it is no surprise that people continue to litter. Does this mean we should support a change in the law regarding the penalties for waste crime?
Under UK law, anybody who is caught dropping litter, cigarette ends, fly-tipping or dog fouling, can be given a fixed penalty notices (FPNs).The FPNs are issued by wardens who set the cost of the fines ranging between 50-80 pounds. Recently it was reported that a mentally ill woman who dropped cigarette because of “uncontrollable shakes” had been fined. This attracted heavy criticism with a local legal advisor saying that such “heavy handed tactics” are “entirely disproportionate” for the offences committed. Indeed, living in fear of being arrested for dropping something as tiny as a cigarette butt, does wreak of the big brother state.
And as I am writing this very sentence from my local cafe here in Golders Green, I look out of the window and right there I see a litter officer issuing a young man a fine! Having never seen a litter officer before, I am shocked. I watch their dispute unfold and see the young man’s facial expression gradually look defeated. I can’t help but feel sorry for him. I walk over to interview the litter warden and he confirms my speculations. He had just issued the man a FPN of 75 pounds and assured me that Barnet has a strict ‘zero tolerance policy’. He reiterated my research on FPNs, stating that they can be issued to anyone who commits an environmental crime, from those who fly-post to those who graffiti.
Litter officer issuing a young man a fine of 75 pounds for dropping his cigarette butt.
Stunned and somewhat saddened, I ask myself whether we will have to resort to instilling a culture of fear that these litter officers have been accused of doing? We know that there is nothing trivial about dropping litter, which degrades our city and costs tax payers almost 1 billion pounds a year to clean up, according a Local Government Association’s case study. So how can we combat this issue without leaving people feeling bitter towards those that are simply trying to keep our environments clean?
Here is a list of some fun, powerful and engaging ways that can dramatically change people’s attitudes towards community spaces and encourage us all to become more conscious about our daily habits.
- Pick litter on a paddle board
Active360 organises river clean-ups through its Paddle and Pick scheme, which aims to raise awareness of plastic pollution through paddleboarding. It’s a fun way to exercise while doing your bit for the environment (if you can keep your balance).
- Highlighting the issue
Circling chewing gum or cigarette butts on the pavements can be a powerful way of making people aware of their behaviour and get them to think twice before tossing rubbish on the roads.
- Clean-up days
CleanUpBritain is currently working on a Beautiful Boroughs project which aims to get people together in various boroughs across the UK so that they can keep their local areas litter free. Alternatively, you can organise a clean-up day yourself. Simply identify the place to clean, get your contacts on board via leafletting/social media pages, register your team on http://www.litteraction.org.uk and begin your clean up! Remember to focus on the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. More importantly, remember to share pictures, videos on social media. This will help positively publicise events and portray litter cleaners as trend setters.
- Celebrating positive behaviour
Celebrate your local streets by organising flash mobs to surround and cheer at those who pick up rubbish found on the ground. Make this dramatic as possible by including flags, trombones, medals and confetti!
Get your local council to invest in a pointillist display. Passersby can stick their chewing gum on one of the x’s on the pointillist displays to reveal a fact on littering. The person who correctly guesses the fact can receive a small prize or be entered into a lucky draw.
- Hubfub’s ballot bin
Get your local council to invest in a ballot bin. The Ballot Bin is a customisable ashtray proven to reduce cigarette butt litter by 47%. Each Ballot Bin displays a question and two answers. Smokers vote by putting their cigarette butt in the slots underneath their preferred answer. The litter stacks up in two columns, showing which answer is more popular. Make questions funny, topical, provocative – whatever works for the target audience.
- Download the LitterGram App
Snap it, share it and sort it. Take photos of litter with your phone. Upload your photos to LitterGram and share on social media. Councils identify litter grot spots and clear up the mess. LitterGram provides councils with a free portal to see detailed information about reports in their area. With no cost and no expensive integration required, councils can sign up and start acting on reports in minutes. https://www.littergram.co.uk
It is clear that we need to do more than simply rely on fines, bins and local officers to solve the UK’s litter epidemic. It is also clear that there is not a ‘one framework for all’ model that can be used to tackle the issue. Instead, the methods listed above show the potential of small group and individual actions. People can take advantage of litter innovation projects to support local initiatives that (1) reduce waste and (2) restore community spirit. Using these alternative approaches to tackle the often overlooked issue of litter can help people celebrate, protect and enhance their local community spaces. More importantly, they can help people reconnect with nature.
The next step is for YOU to build a movement in your local community that works towards engaging people in a way that is positive and that encourages people to look after streets that they live and work on. Reach out to members of your local community and share your ideas with your MP. The more creative these approaches are, the more likely it is that people will use them. This will make it easier for us to create the healthy and safe environments that we all have the right to live in. These methods combined, can be used as a model for aspiring positive behavioural change innovations in cities across the UK.