Litter: a national or local problem?

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Gum chalking in London by environmental charity, Hubbub, to highlight the problem of discarded chewing gum
Most, if not all of the comment contained herein do nothing to alleviate the problem. All roads but ...

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With England suffering from an ‘endemic litter problem’ according to an MPs’ inquiry, both government and industry – not to mention the public – need to get their act together, but debates about the best way forward rage on. By David Burrows

The group of MPs leading an inquiry into litter didn’t beat about the bush in their final report. “England is a litter-ridden country compared to most of Europe, North America and Japan,” the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee declared on March 14, 2015. “Levels of litter in England have hardly improved in the past 12 years and the best estimates are that litter costs the taxpayer between £717 and £850 million a year to clear up.”

Change is needed, they said. Included in their 16 recommendations were: new on-pack labels for fast-food and take-away packaging to encourage responsible disposal; free industry-bought portable ashtrays for cigarette butts; and a final warning for the chewing-gum industry to “put its house in order” or face a tax to pay for clean-up costs.

There was more. The responsibility split between Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was considered “unhelpful”, prompting the MPs to renew calls for a national litter strategy to align national policy: “Government and industry need to get together to tackle the endemic litter problem.”

Slow government response

None of this was revolutionary, yet Defra and DCLG deliberated over the findings for a full nine months before publishing their response in December. Much of it was as expected, but one line grabbed considerable attention: “We will therefore seek to work with local government and relevant stakeholders to develop a national litter strategy which clarifies the contributions that different sectors can make to tackling litter, and to set the context for ongoing anti-litter activity.”

The announcement went down well. And the responsible minister, Rory Stewart, has wasted no time in setting the ball rolling. Keep Britain Tidy (KBT), Incpen, the Local Government Association, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), the Foodservice Packaging Association, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and campaign group Hubbub all headed to Defra HQ for an initial get-together not long after the new year hangovers had subsided.

But ministers may well have left the rendezvous with another headache, given that the development of this new strategy is likely to be among the trickier jobs on their to-do list this year. Indeed, a closer analysis of the government’s response flags a number of inconsistencies. Top of the pile is the age-old debate on whether the best approach is national solutions or regional activity.

The reaction from KBT captures the zeitgeist. “The government appears to have taken on board calls from Keep Britain Tidy for leadership on the issue of litter,” says chief executive Allison Ogden-Newton. However, “it is disappointing to see a continuing emphasis on tackling litter and fly-tipping at a local level without any acknowledgement of the impact of austerity on local authorities’ ability to deal with these issues”.

Indeed, litter is an issue that hits councils hardest. “At a time when councils face difficult choices about services in the light of reducing budgets, they are having to spend almost £1 billion a year on tackling litter and fly-tipping,” said Peter Box at the LGA, back in May.

Plugging the financial hole

Since then there has been the Spending Review, with councils hit with a further £4.1 billion of cuts between now and 2020. LGA chairman Lord Porter put this in perspective when he said that even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children’s centres, libraries, leisure centres and turned off every street light, they would not have saved enough money to plug the “financial black hole” they face.

So, a national strategy on litter that simply devolves the problem to councils won’t wash. And yet the government has made it blatantly clear that this is what we are likely to get.

In its first lines of the response to the CLG Committee, the government notes how it is “committed to localism and the transfer of power to local communities. This is particularly relevant in dealing with litter and fly-tipping problems, which require a local approach, tailored to the characteristics of the area and the community in which the problems occur.”

Sure, there are areas where councils, campaign groups and residents have come together and innovated to help clean up. The one run by Hubbub and KBT in Villiers Street, central London, has attracted its fair share of attention, having applied a range of ‘fun’ anti-litter interventions during a six-month period to help cut litter by 26%.

Others have used fiscal incentives to change behaviour, including raffles to give people who correctly dispose of their litter the chance to win shopping vouchers. In some areas, private security firms have been enlisted to impose on-the-spot fines (the stick, rather than carrot, approach). Fixed penalties could rise to £150 as part of the new litter strategy, according to an interview with communities minister Marcus Jones recently, as the government plans a nationwide spring clean before the Queen’s 90th birthday.

All these initiatives, along with ‘clear-up days’, have all worked to varying degrees, but however many local success stories there are, they can’t hide the national picture.

American writer and anti-litter campaigner David Sedaris has likened England to a “teenager’s bedroom”. He told the CLG Committee: “It is funny how many people I have spoken to in the UK who say, ‘Well, it [the litter problem] is like this everywhere.’ It is not. You have to go deep into Eastern Europe to find it this bad.”

Dan Rogerson, the resources minister at the time of inquiry, disagreed. He maintained that “there is a pretty good standard across areas”, and “we have not seen a problem that is getting dramatically worse”. Perhaps true – but it isn’t getting dramatically better, either.

Looking beyond the statistics

The latest – and final – local environmental quality survey (LEQSE 2014/15) was published in December. It shows that although overall litter levels improved “slightly”, this “masks” increases in some key litter items, in particular plastic bags and fast-food litter.

The survey was carried out before England’s bag tax was introduced in October, so in theory that source should diminish accordingly (in Ireland, a charge cut plastic bag litter from 5% to 0.22%).

But what about fast food, which is now found on almost a third of all sites (32%), compared with 20% a decade ago? The CLG Committee recommended the introduction of on-pack information on all branded take-away and fast-food packaging to remind consumers to dispose of litter responsibly. A mandatory requirement may contravene the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, but a voluntary code of practice could work, the government said in response.

Martin Kersh, executive director at the Foodservice Packaging Association, is keen on an industry-agreed initiative to help change behaviour. “The Tidyman logo has endured,” he says, “but I’m wondering whether it’s become a bit like wallpaper and [people] don’t notice it any more.” Given that it’s been around since 1969, maybe it’s time for a refresh.

But would that be enough?

The Foodservice Packaging Association, much like Incpen, will have pushed the soft-touch, industry-led approaches in their recent meeting with ministers. Both groups were relieved to see no mention of levies or charges in the government’s responses to the CLG Committee. Incpen’s Jane Bickerstaffe says there has been far too much talk about levies and charges, which result in “dead money” through administrative costs and are focused on the negatives. “Let’s be positive,” she says, adding that it’s “inconceivable” that deposit return schemes would work in this climate.

But Scotland is already considering one and wants Westminster to follow suit. The SNP may also seek to expand the carrier bag charge to other single-use items. “The principle is a good one and we want to explore what the next stage should be,” said Scotland’s environment minister Richard Lochhead recently.

This approach, using financial incentives to target specific items at a national level, is a key way to tackle litter, according to consultants at Eunomia. It’s worked elsewhere, so why not here, says Chris Sherrington, a principal consultant at the firm. He highlights how, in Germany, recycling rates of over 90% are reported for deposit-bearing PET bottles and cans; food for thought, given the worrying dip in collection quality levels at UK kerbsides.

Deposit return schemes?

Previous research by Eunomia has shown savings for local authorities from deposit schemes. Though not a full cost-benefit analysis; a study last May for the Scottish Government also indicated that “the monetary value of the environmental benefits [of a deposit return scheme] may be significantly higher than the financial costs”.

Sherrington also believes the benefits of a charge on the estimated 2.5 billion disposable cups used in the UK every year can outweigh the costs. Similar in principle to the carrier-bag charge, this would bring about waste prevention and reduce litter, he claims.

“The government seems to be saying that it will do nothing at a national level and leave it up to local government, but I don’t think that’s entirely right. The principle of applying a financial incentive on a national basis to prevent waste (and litter) is a sound one. The mechanism is working for bags, so let’s apply this approach to other items.”

Everyone agrees that something has to be done, but the debate about what is likely to continue for some time yet.

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Most, if not all of the comment contained herein do nothing to alleviate the problem. All roads but especially dual carriageways and motorways are the worst and are nothing short of "disgraceful" for a country purporting to be top in this and top in that. In my estimation a heavy hand needs to be put on the collective shoulder of local councils, because, as we are all aware, though they are not the perpetrators in the first instance, it is they who are tasked with the clean up operation and paid rather well to do it. So where is the hard earned money out of the public purse going, because it is most certainly not on road and street cleaning? What must foreigners think as they travel the roads of our once Great Britain? We put out an extremely negative view of ourselves. SUGGESTION. To help clean up roads, l suggest coning off part of the road to be cleaned, in order to keep those performing the clean up safe. When lorry drivers and others are then frustrated by the delays caused, place a large sign at the end of the lane restriction, informing them....."Picking Up Your Litter" Maybe, just maybe, this will ultimately drive it home to those concerned that every action has an equal and opposite reaction!!!

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