It was a Sunday morning much like many others. A slow start, then lazily checking through social media with a cup of coffee – until I noticed a post on WhatsApp by Bylines co-founder, Mike Galsworthy. He had come across a tweet by Clean Up Britain, with a short video they had taken of a motorway verge at the M6/M58 junction.
I had driven past there just a few days before, and not noticed anything while concentrating on the road. Seeing this video, I was appalled. I contacted John Read, founder of Clean Up Britain.
He started this not-for-profit Community Interest Company in 2010, and has a group of dedicated supporters who are equally as unhappy about the state of Britain and the amount of litter being dumped daily, as we all should be. I say ‘should’, because it would seem pretty obvious a large number of people don’t think twice about throwing their litter all over the place, regardless of the consequences.
How does litter affect the environment and us?
When I spoke to John Read, he explained: “Litter has hugely damaging consequences for the environment. Much litter ends up being cut into tiny pieces and seeping into soil and rivers, causing more pollution. For instance, cigarette butts contain cellulose acetate, which is a form of plastic and tens of millions of these are littered every day.”
Plastic takes centuries to decompose, and meanwhile it is polluting riverways and oceans. We may enjoy a drink for minutes, and afterwards we make the environment suffer for hundreds of years if we don’t dispose of the packaging correctly.
John continued: “Animals and wildlife often ingest litter, causing serious injury and even death. The RSPCA gets about 7,000 calls a year in connection with litter-related issues affecting animals.”
Animals get stuck in plastic bags, in the plastic that holds cans together, and in open food cans. If they accidentally ingest a cigarette butt, they are at risk of nicotine poisoning. Why do we risk our wildlife’s health and life?
Litter also affects us. How does it make people feel to see the amount of pollution on the roadside or elsewhere? John replied: “It is visible pollution that, of course, looks disgusting and is soul-destroying for many, if not most people. What do international visitors make of run-down, rancid and hyper-littered Britain?”
Seeing litter and pollution makes you feel you are in a run-down area, and is that really the visual we want to present to people coming to the North West? Do we not have any pride?
Living in a dirty, littered area is not good for physical and mental health. If the roads and green areas are dirty, you are far less likely to go outside for exercise or recreation, resulting in less stress reduction, fewer cardiovascular benefits, and less vitamin D production. And less chance of meeting up with others, and having a friendly chat.Litter also means health risks; it attracts animals, like rats, for example. Trafford Council’s risk assessment warns litter-pickers that handling litter carries a risk of leptospirosis from animal infected urine, Lyme disease from ticks, and toxocara canis from dog faeces.
What is the government doing about littering?
The Government has published Litter Strategy for England, a white paper explaining how they hope to tackle the problem. What does Clean Up Britain think of it?
John Read responded: “Westminster politicians fail to understand that litter is an issue that really matters to millions of people. In 2017, the government produced the first-ever national anti-litter strategy. It was an appallingly inept and useless document, that could have been put together by the average ten-year-old. Needless to say, it has been a terrible failure and has not made any positive difference – as you can see from the epidemic of litter evident all over Britain.”
The paper states how the government hopes to tackle littering: education, enforcement – both fines and peer pressure – and through infrastructure changes, which means more bins placed in strategic areas.
For people throwing litter out of cars, or people taking a walk on the beach, enforcement and infrastructure are not much use. If there are no peers nearby, and the area is not conducive to having a bin placed, there is only one strategy option left: education will be the main point. And for that, the government has decided to rely heavily on the private and voluntary sector (point 3.1.1 in their litter strategy paper). Shifting the responsibility elsewhere again.
Motorways and their verges are the responsibility of National Highways, a government-owned company (formerly the Highways Agency). But what are they doing to clean up the mess people make? Not much, as a Clean Up Britain video tells us.
Enforcement – the legal aspect
Legally speaking, littering and fly tipping are classed as an ‘environmental offence’, and if caught doing it, you can get a fixed penalty notice. The amount charged may vary; in the Wigan Council area (which is where the M6 and the M58 meet), the minimum to pay would be £75, the maximum £2,500.
And are people fined? Does it even happen? Hardly ever, it would seem. England and Wales councils do not hand out fines regularly, with most councils even ‘hardly ever’ fining those who purposely ruin our environment. So fixed penalty notices are not going to be a deterrent, if the chances of getting one are minimal.
What can we do to reduce the problem?
The main point of course is to stop littering. And stop others littering. Clean Up Britain have put together a ‘Behavioural Change Jigsaw’ with their proposals.
Peer pressure is very important, showing friends, family and strangers that you do not think littering is acceptable, and that there are better ways of disposing of your rubbish. If you carry a full bottle or can of drinks with you at the start of a walk, you can carry the empty container back as well. It seems so simple. And really, it is that simple.
And if you see litter in an area? Arrange a litter pick. Some councils do this, for instance in Haydock, St Helens, the Green Party councillors arrange such an event regularly. It is a chance to clean up nature, meet like-minded people, and achieve something worthwhile.
Education would ideally start in schools, so the non-littering behaviour gets enforced throughout childhood and we raise a new generation who are proud of keeping their country clean and looking after their planet.
Fines, or fixed-penalty notices, especially for repeat offenders, should already have been handed out, and it is high time councils start taking these offences seriously. Make individuals and councils responsible, and shame on councils and communities that don’t deal with the problem.
Clean Up Britain have also proposed a good way forward, getting education authorities, councils and National Highways to work together to protect the country and the future.
However, John Read feels that – at the moment – there is “far too much buck-passing between councils and National Highways, and they need to jettison their ‘it’s not our responsibility’ culture, which is all-too-often prevalent. Let’s be very clear: the North West and the whole of Britain looks like a filthy, littered, dump at present. We need to re-discover our sense of pride and respect, or at least the 20 million people who admit to dropping litter need to…”
Editor’s note: If you want to help Clean Up Britain but are not able to go litter picking or educate people, please consider donating.