--- Wed 24 Jan 2018 updated: Fri 02 Mar 2018
Welcome to our new blog on the disgusting, unsightly and costly habit of littering. In the first of the series CEO of environmental charity Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, Ian Humphreys, introduces the subject of litter. If litter gets your goat and you want to contribute contact Ian here.
Over the coming months this blog is going to dig into the issue of litter. How do we deal with the proliferation of single use plastics? What role do legislation, taxes and levies have to play? And where does responsibility for litter really lie? Whatever you think, society at last seems to be saying littering has to stop. We have reached the final straw. Image: Off our trolleys: litter removed from a small Belfast river by volunteers
To start though, we’re taking a lighter look at litter…
- Littering is as old as the hills
- Women started it all
- The origin of the word litter is…
- You pay for other people littering
- More plastic than fish in the sea
Back in 2012, whilst completing a litter clean-up on Rathlin Island, I came across what must be one of the oldest pieces of litter in the world. It was identified as a 5,000 year old flint scraper tool used by our ancestors for cleaning animal skins. I guess that once it became too small or blunt to use it was chucked away. There’s not much call for flint scrapers these days but the 24/7 culture of eating and drinking on the go means the fight against this deadly scourge is increasingly challenging.
Yes they did, but I’m not talking about littering. Quite the opposite. The Women’s Institute started the clean-up movement that became Keep Britain Tidy in 1954. I imagine litter then consisted of glass bottles being left in the countryside by city dwellers, leading to fires on those rare summer days when focusing the sun’s rays could ignite a flame. So began the fight against what I guess we might term ‘modern littering’. In the year 2000 devolution led to the establishment of TIDY Northern Ireland, which rebranded as Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful in 2014.
The word litter derives from the habit of throwing out old bedding (think cat litter or a litter for carrying someone on) onto the street, probably once there were too many bedbugs living in your old straw mattress or when a bumper wheat harvest meant a new one was on special offer. The word litter doesn’t translate too well across Europe and in some countries waste has to cover both what we think of as waste and litter. Thankfully, litter at last looks like being specifically included in the Waste Directive Amendments.
Across Europe street cleaning costs are measured in billions. Here in Northern Ireland we spend over £45million a year or £55 per ratepayer, whether you litter or not. That’s £25 for every man woman and child (even if they are still in nappies). That’s unfair, I say. Not having to spend rates on cleaning up after people could allow us to protect precious greenspaces, parks and beaches, which are the envy of the world. A clean and pleasant land is much easier to entice visitors to and for businesses to invest in, because it reflects very clearly the intent of the population here around how we care for each other, for nature and for employers too.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastics (by weight) than fish. Now whether that’s true or just roughly true seems to me irrelevant. The fact is that plastic is turning up everywhere in increasing quantities, including – as micro-plastics - in our fish supper. That’s not on! It gets worse. These tiny pieces of plastic are sucking up toxic chemicals out of the seawater and loading them into the fish we eat. I feel sick just writing about it. Thankfully the EU is taking action: I hope we don’t jettison environmental standards in our rush to leave Europe.
Despite the light-heartedness I’ve tried to show just how costly, negative and damaging litter is. The likes of Sky Ocean Rescue and BBC’s Blue Planet II have really ignited people’s passion and now it is time to not just stop littering but to fundamentally change the way society operates.