THE BLOG

Why Is Litter Not a Big Political Issue?

09/06/2014 12:54 BST | Updated 05/08/2014 10:59 BST

At the recent local elections, I was surprised why litter and the safety of our neighbourhoods was not a top issue of discussion. When I meet my neighbours we often comment on the increased litter and how that makes us feel distressed and upset. Litter free, clean, green spaces are important to people and their everyday lives. But nowadays, everywhere is blighted by litter, dog fouling, fly-tipping, graffiti and fly-posting. Drive along the motorways, spend time on the beach or watch what the Thames brings up on its tide twice a day and wait for the huge amount of plastic to arrive. It would seem no person can survive anymore without a plastic bottle of water.

Every morning I clean a space on a train littered with coffee cups and free newspapers. Ironic given that the big billboards ignore this and focus on making us aware of how we should make the planet greener, use natural resources and leave a safer and more sustainable world to our children. I tut and kiss my teeth in annoyance because what I see is a world that is turning into a litter cesspit and a failure to understand the implications of this on our politics and social cohesion. Just reflect on some of the signs of lack of social cohesion in our low engagement in voting, drop in volunteering, reduced neighbourliness and increases in petty crime, loneliness and human isolation. Did you know that 2 out of 5 elderly people in the UK rely on the TV or a pet as their main source of company.

Dropping litter has increased 500% over the last few years and one in five people admitted to dropping litter with young urban males most likely to do it than anyone else. 42% of smokers thought it was ok to drop litter as opposed to16% non-smokers. 37% said ok to litter if there is waste already and if there were no available bins. The amount of litter collected from beaches has reached an all time high with 2400 items of litter for every kilometre of coastline.

Littering appears to be symptomatic of social and individual attitudes towards public space and waste. As someone who runs nurseries, I will not tolerate litter and expect staff to keep the space clean irrespective of who dumped the litter in the first place. I am often surprised by the attitude of young staff who think it's someone else's job to pick it up because 'we didn't drop it' or 'it's got germs. According to 'Keep Britain Tidy'young people do not want to touch litter because of germs and they also think the idea of taking their litter home is foul! On a recent BBC magazine show the reporter approached a group of young people to ask them about the littering problem and their view was "it is disgusting isn't it, we left this rubbish here yesterday and today it is still here - what do we pay our taxes for?' well, those taxes we pay to clean up after everyone else adds up to £1billion in England. That would solve the cost of childcare in a second.

Litter isn't just the rubbish strewn on the roadside. Its bad architecture, poor housing design, second-rate public spaces and High Streets littered with betting shops, payday loan shops, and pawnbrokers. What impact has this on our attitudes? Is there more litter in poor neighbourhoods because we drop more or because we fail to collect it? Does it say something about disconnect from a neighbourhood where the line of betting and pawn shops serves only to rub failure in our faces? Is the issue litter or poor housing design when greedy landlords make too many flat conversions crowding the street - compounded by local authority limited rubbish collections, small bins with overflowing litter and complicated recycling systems?

Consider the children for whom we proclaim to want to have "a better world". Children experience space differently from adults, which makes it critical for them to have a say in decisions that shape their outdoor environments and shared community spaces. It's rare that we ask children what they want or need and we often dislike the answer such as safer outdoor play spaces.

Mark Dudek (2001) says, 'Good architecture combines the practical with something less tangible; a sense of delight in the spaces which make up a building as a whole, which may even modify the moods of its users in a positive way. If designed skilfully, a building will help to make children's experience of their early year's care a secure yet varied one.'

We conducted a piece of research with our four year olds and gave them a camera each. They walked all around their local streets taking photographs of what made them feel 'sad and unsafe.' Suffice to say their top three were litter and black bags, bird guano and dogs.

Litter touches us on a much deeper level. It makes us feel unsafe and disconnected. It affects our sense of political and social justice. We try and address it by reconnecting to community cohesion and push volunteer schemes. Organisations such as, Eco-Schools join activities such as the Great Litter Count, which recorded 37,000 individual pieces of litter were recorded and shaming the most littered brand. Keep Britain Tidy has the Litter Action website and MeetUp as well as the Big Tidy Up campaign which LEYF has joined but what difference can we make? Sadly, very little because we are neither changing nor embedding attitudes to litter.

Every now and then there is a desultory attempt to remind people that littering is a crime.

People temporarily reengage with the debate about littering not being a victimless crime but as a key factor in bringing down areas and leading to further "petty" criminal and irresponsible behaviour. We occasionally hear that someone is fined for dropping a cigarette or an apple core, the sort of irresponsible reporting that fails to get any public support.

The view that if we all make a fuss then tidy streets will feature higher on the governments list of priorities is one to challenge. Look at Edi Rama Mayor of Tirana in Albania who gives a heart-warming account of taking control of his city by addressing the littering of ugly illegal buildings which had made the city unsafe, dirty and ugly. He introduced colour on the buildings, grew more trees and cleaned up the litter. The result was successful reengagement with the community and the political process so the new green tax was paid and people took responsibility for their city. He led the charge and got the people behind him. He took real action and demonstrated the possibility to a disenchanted population. Here our politicians haven't even read the graffiti on the wall.

So what can we do? Start by having a debate on the construct of ownership. How do we make people feel some sense of community ownership? Should we require everyone to keep the front of their house tidy and that includes the pavement as our European neighbours do? How can this be managed for flats and tower blocks? We certainly need a consistent and effective permanent campaign and education about social norms. We probably need a continual national campaign to spearhead this debate, though the current leaders in this space seem far too quiet! We need noise and much more modern engagement and we need to get the young who will inherit this earth to develop a sense of social outrage that will force a change starting with themselves.

We need a systematic enforcement, a point made by the Policy Exchange report on litter in 2009.

Then there are many win-win activities that we can copy like the banning of carrier bags as done in Ireland or the US New York bottle deposit system which decreased roadside litter by 70% and container litter by 80%.

We need to learn from effective marketing techniques such as applying the social proof approach to how we advertise "no litter" signs, put testimonials about improvement in prominent local places, use video surveillance, well placed mirrors where people can see what they are doing or placing a simple picture of eyes on the wall which has the effect of getting others to act in more socially conscious ways.

Confucius said 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'. So start here!