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Cllr Nick Botterill was Cabinet Member for Environment in Hammersmith & Fulham 2006-2012 as well as Council Leader 2012-2014.

The American author and comedian, David Sedaris recently attracted a lot of publicity after he told the House of Commons Communities & Local Government Select Committee that “poor people are more likely to drop litter” – but does Sedaris’ claim stand up to scrutiny?

Many of the streets and pavements of our towns and cities are blighted by low level littering, particularly after the ‘night time economy’ has done its bit. But even the most lackadaisical urban authority manages to remove the obvious accumulations at regular intervals. Far, far worse are the roadside verges along motorways, A and B roads and even many country lanes. In winter, a combination of the virtual absence of rural roadside cleansing activities, high winds and bare bushes creates scenes of seeming devastation along miles of country roads which come to resemble poorly covered over landfill sites.

Quite simply roadside litter is a national disgrace and the problem is far worse in Britain than anywhere else in North America or northern Europe.

I am surely not the first motorist to grind my teeth in anger and think of all the types of Saudi Arabian style punishments which I would like to inflict on people who throw litter from their cars or deposit sacks of rubbish at lay-bys. However, the more I consider the problem in the cold light of day, the less I believe it is down to the actions of the “poor” as Mr Sedaris contends. Incidentally, some of the worst rural roadside locations for litter I have seen this winter have been in the likes of Bath & North East Somerset, northern Wiltshire and Gloucestershire – areas hardly known for their excessive levels of deprivation!

My view is that it isn’t the poor who create much of the great swathes of litter which blight rural roadsides.  Here’s the rub, I believe it is often down to the very people who wouldn’t for a moment think they were part of such a problem let alone its cause. What about the householders who leave bins overflowing or recycling bags untied or boxes with lids off and open or to the wind or refuse unsealed and able to be raided with the result that the contents get scattered by scavenging animals?

What about those who use silly shopping bags for light rubbish which inevitably blows into the road and gets squashed and scattered? I see household after household which does this sort of thing week after week seemingly oblivious to the mess they generate – no doubt they tut tut and blame the council! Often they don’t even pick up the resulting mess when it is right outside their gate.

Then there are the businesses which do something similarly daft – maybe thousands of polystyrene packing chips left loose in an open discarded box put out on the road as refuse just before a winter storm. If only the whole lot had been placed in a securely tied up sack and placed in a bin or left with a stone on top, the contents wouldn’t now be decorating the roadside and hedgerows for over 100 yards.

Then there are the numerous open style ‘flat-bed’ trucks (builders merchants seem to be the worst) blithely driving along as multiple lengthy shards of their load’s polythene wrapping unravels, shears and flies off to entangle itself around the roadside bushes and trees.

On some routes it is even the recycling lorries, their hoppers covered only in flimsy nets full of holes, which gradually lose multiple bits and pieces from the load along the way.

Local authority contractors are also not immune; how many times do they fail to take away cones, sand bags, building materials or broken signs after road works? These are all too frequent examples of people and organizations who don’t set out to litter the countryside but do it because they don’t think through the consequences of their actions. Despite all the hand wringing by many of us, supplemented by good practical work from Tidy Britain et al, the reality is that there is little consciousness amongst most of our fellow citizens of how their own behaviour is the root cause of the littering problem in this country.

I don’t believe there is any silver bullet solution but there are a number of sticks and carrots which could be deployed or beefed up. Much as I hate any “tin pot” approach, some more rigorous enforcement of presumably existing laws concerning lorries carrying loads is an absolute necessity.

This surely can’t be impossible – has anyone seen a lorry in Germany shedding polythene strips to decorate the roadside trees as it travels along? There needs to be clear, consistent and regularly reinforced messaging and advice by local authorities to residents and businesses on how to handle refuse awaiting collection – mostly common sense and some councils already do this better than others.  Could lay-bys be closed which regularly attract fly tipping and the bins removed at others – this would be a pain for some drivers but would also no doubt help to reduce the opportunity to create a mess?

Let’s be frank however, these are all minor palliatives and the real answer to our roadside litter woes is that public consciousness on the issue has to be raised across the board. The message which needs to be put across time and time again, backed up by publicity, is that our excessive levels of litter are not only a national disgrace but a problem which causes millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money (i.e. your money) to be spent on cleansing.

This is money which otherwise shouldn’t need to be spent – surely that is an incentive big enough to bring about a change in behaviour? The corporate sector could also be enlisted to help.

Maybe this could be done by publishing league tables of the top brands which turn up most frequently in roadside litter collected by local authorities – few companies would like being reproached in this way and I suspect it would lead to redoubled corporate efforts and advertising to educate consumers as to the ideal and most responsible ways of disposal.

We should also look at what has worked in other countries – the US had a big problem with roadside litter over 25 years ago and yet, despite all the multiple fast food outlets in that country, a long running successful campaign managed to turn the public to such an extent that roadside litter is now far less obvious there than in the UK.

In the end we have to be honest with ourselves as to the scale of the national litter problem and accept that it is the result of our collective national attitude. Singling out the poor, or any other narrow groups, for blame is surely as illogical as it is likely to be ineffective.

8 comments for: Cllr Nick Botterill: Litter – our national disgrace, but are the poor really responsible?

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