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Your litter, your responsibility

May 18, 2010

Back in the 80s, the non-environmentally concerned Margaret Thatcher was once filmed scurrying enthusiastically around a park picking up bits of rubbish and putting them in a black sack.

A couple of decades on, a reduction in the amount of litter on the UK’s verges and fields might be one way of measuring the success of the new, mainly Conservative, government in delivering its ‘Big Society’.  And some kind of performance indicator would be certainly be useful, for all that the new administration is not going to be as target-obsessed as its predecessor.

A country that looks a little less like a rubbish tip won’t come about through the actions of massed ranks of community-minded people joining together for picking-up days, though all this can help.  Rather, the change will be that more potential litterers will have a ‘social’, or ‘Big Social’, conscience.

The previous government was in talks with McDonalds and Coca Cola about reducing the amount of snack packaging litter.  But more bins near restaurants or bin-your-litter logos on drinks cans are not going to do anything about the litter on verges of rural roads or on footpaths (for the remotest areas aren’t escaping this scourge).

A Keep Britain Tidy survey examined people who have admitted to dropping litter.  Among the reasons were: not enough bins (but surely there never will be in most areas) and nowhere in the car to stash litter (this is what motivates chucking things out of the window).  Also, if an area already appears run-down and dirty it doesn’t seem to matter fouling it further.

The respondents saw littering as acceptable when everyone else was doing it, in the cinema perhaps or at a football match.  In these situations – and this is the crucial point – their notion of personal responsibility is largely absentNote that another excuse given was ‘being drunk’, which is basically just a more extreme example of failing to think rationally due to outside (in this case, alcoholic) influences.

In 100 years time, that Fanta can dropped today will still be there if no one has removed it.  It will have been joined by other cans too by then, making archaeologists wonder whether someone once held a rock festival on that stretch of ‘A’ road.

Some say that a clean-up tax on fast food items would help put an end to this offence.  However, though it could provide the funds for clearing up the thoughtless person’s mess, it would not prevent someone littering in the first place.  Another, fairly bizarre idea is that any packaging identified as originating from a particular food retailer should be picked up and taken to the ‘guilty’ store to deal with.  But this is of no help if the rubbish is an anonymous plain blue bag or a Walker’s rather than own-label crisp packet; and who would have the time or nerve to go to a largely-blameless supermarket with the offending items?                          

The answer to the problem can only lie in a change of outlook on the part of the individual: a heightened regard for others, a renewed sense of responsibility.

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