Why littering is a surprisingly big issue

Jessica Lone Summers 11 February 2021

Compared with the glaringly obvious environmental issues we hear about every day, littering often takes a backseat—but it’s more pressing than we may think

If you were to toss, say, a banana peel out of your car while driving along the motorway, that would be a completely harmless action, due the fact that it’s part of a fruit—right? Actually, no. A banana peel can take up to two years to decompose, and with a third of motorists admitting to littering while driving, that’s a whole lot of discarded banana peels, or much worse. An orange peel and a cigarette butt has a similar biodegrading term to that of a banana, but tin and aluminium cans last up to 100 years; and plastic bottles last forever, as do glass bottles, Styrofoam cups and plastic bags.

Despite the fact that longer-lasting materials will serve to damage the environment and its animals for longer, we can’t solely measure the severity of a certain type of rubbish by its lifetime. For example, despite having a fairly short biodegrading span, more than 120 tons of cigarette-related litter is discarded in the UK every day. Similarly, our regular littering here and there has caused the UK’s rat population to increase by 60 million. This suddenly isn’t so mysterious when you consider that since the 1960s our annual littering has increased by an astounding 500 per cent.

It’s not a cheap habit either: UK taxpayers shelve out £500 million in order to keep our streets clean, and when you include our green spaces, that goes up to £1 billion. So, it’s not surprising that if caught fly-tipping you could face a £20,000 fine or even jail time and, if you disposed of something hazardous, the court could give you five years to serve. Regardless of how severe these punishments might seem, however, among the reported cases only 2,000 were convicted out of 825,000, so we still have some way to go in making sure people abide by the rules.

To take back our beautiful countryside and cities we need to do more than simply not leaving rubbish where it ought not to be. We need a pride makeover, we need to truly care more about the world around us.

 

Expert Q&A: Allison Ogden-Newton

Ceo of Keep Britain Tidy

 

How did you become an authority in conservation?

It would be hard to live through the past decade without knowing we all have to act to save the environment. I had been looking for the means and Keep Britain Tidy gave me the opportunity and platform to help everyone protect the environment.

 

What are the biggest environmental challenges we currently face from littering?

We need to reuse what we can and—when we buy—we need to work at recycling. Consumption is on the rise, little thought is given to how new products can and will be recycled and too few households are committed to maximising their recycling.

 

What does Keep Britain Tidy do to help our planet?

Our annual campaign The Great British Spring Clean reaches millions of people and even in 2020 engaged hundreds of thousands of volunteers. We ecourage retailers to minimise the littering of their products and we work with consumers, retailers and local authorities to increase recycling. We have established more than 20,000 Eco schools where children are taught to make a difference.

 

What changes need to happen to tackle ecocide?

We need leadership to set higher standards for consumerism and recycling. It should not be possible to produce and package a product without clearly pointing to how it will be recycled in the current system. Recycling needs investment. There are great technologies out there but few local authorities can afford to install them. There should be one system for the UK, DRS—a deposit return scheme where drinks containers can be returned—needs to happen quickly and throughout our retail infrastructure, and we need investment in marketing and education to make sure everyone understands how their behaviour makes a huge difference.

 

What do you predict for the future if nothing changes?

Fear of the environmental impact of litter is on the rise as we are learning more about the omnipresent micro plastics that have now entered the food chain. But consumerism is on the increase too and without leadership, laws, education and investment we are heading for a dystopian future where our food is no longer safe and our legacy to our children is a network of landfill sites that rival the Egyptian pyramids in size and longevity. 

Read more: Why we need young people to fight for the climate

Read more: Everything you need to know about The Great Barrier Reef


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