Litter has been a problem in Britain for a long time. Unless I am mistaken I can still remember an advertising campaign featuring Ronnie Corbett with a slogan along the lines of “Litter isn’t much fun when you’re only five feet one”. That was back in the 1970s … maybe. Sadly, since then nothing much has changed, not for the better at any rate.
The sides of our main roads are now littered with the detritus of relative affluence: fizzy drinks cans and plastic bottles; fast food packaging with smiling clowns and Colonels; cigarette packets and sweet wrappers; plus of course the ubiquitous plastic carrier bag.
Whilst much of it is potentially harmful to wildlife my main gripe is that it just looks so damn ugly. And is a constant reminder of the developed world’s complete lack of concern and care for the natural environment. It seems that if something is there to be spoiled then spoil it we must.
The problem and ugliness of litter is perhaps most keenly felt during a trip to the beach. You know the scenario, a beautiful sunny day just perfect for a picnic on the sand and a paddle in the sea. Stunning location, great scenery, but almost impossible to find somewhere not affected by somebody else’s discarded waste.
The latest annual survey by the Marine Conservation Society highlights that there are record amounts of litter on Britain’s beaches, an increase of 110% since 1994. The south-west of England now appears to have the most litter-strewn beaches with an average number of 4,784 items of litter being collected per kilometre of beach in the most recent survey.
Where does it all come from? Over a third is attributed to having been dropped by the public, with the next three most important sources being fishing-related litter, sewage-related debris (cotton buds and various unmentionables), and shipping. Predictably, plastics accounted for the largest percentage of items found during the survey.
Litter doesn’t just turn up on the beach either, it swills around in the sea, largely out of sight but causing problems to humans and wildlife alike. One Cornish fisherman I heard interviewed reckoned that 10% of his fishing effort was now spent on dealing with the rubbish he “caught” in his trawl nets, anything from plastic bags to oil drums with the occasional fridge or TV thrown in for good measure!
Around 250 dead dolphins are washed up each year around our coasts, some of these undoubtedly litter related deaths such as being caught in discarded fishing nets. And marine turtles it seems have a penchant for consuming plastic bags, presumably mistaking them for jellyfish, which does them no good at all.
Tackling the problem of litter poses real challenges. Anti-litter campaigns have been remarkably unsuccessful and one not infrequently reads of cases in the newspaper where people have been fined for having dropped a piece of litter and who are now claiming that the punishment is disproportionate. Well, just don’t do it is my unsympathetic response to their whinge.
Why do people, particularly those who should know better, drop litter? I suspect that littering is merely the tip of the iceberg and is probably a symptom of a wider malaise in Britain that includes a lack of civic pride, a lack of sense of community, a lack of personal responsibility for one’s own actions. An attitude of it’s not my problem, somebody else will pick it up anyway.
So how do we start to change the mindset of people who really don’t want to change? Education can help but, let’s face, it we all do things we know are bad for us or we know we shouldn’t do because that is the nature of humanity; we are entirely fallible. So in my view it can only be done through a “zero tolerance” type of approach whereby it is instilled in everyone that dropping litter is unacceptable and will be punished accordingly. Dropping litter needs to become socially unacceptable in much the same way that drink driving has now been driven out of mainstream behaviour.
That requires a change in the mindset of the enforcement authorities and for all of us to play our part. The environment, wildlife and we humans too would benefit greatly as a result.