Litter: can we stop the rot?

Beautiful Britain? Not really. The UK is one of the filthiest countries in Europe for rubbish. Country Life’s campaign aims to change attitudes to desecrating the landscape, as we reveal the shocking statistics.

Britain’s collective rubbish dump is at an all-time high. We live in a flyblown nation that has lost its self-respect. Each year, we spend almost £1 billion cleaning up streets, parks and countryside, which represents too much money spent on an avoidable issue, but not enough time spent to make a difference.

How did this sloppy selfishness overtake the whole country? Everyone knows that spreading litter is wrong, yet it has become an acceptable shame for some people and it’s getting worse. Ever-increasing amounts of packaging, plastic bags and fast-food outlets provide the ammunition, but ammunition is nothing without a hand to hurl it.

Fortunately, admirable bodies such as Keep Britain tidy, the Marine Conservation society and the CPRE encourage armies of litter heroes who tidy up parishes, parks and beaches. it follows that, if there’s less litter in the first place, less will be dropped, but it’s still a case of the few taking on the many, with, on average, 2.25 million pieces of rubbish dropped every day—the drifts of debris on roadsides seem to act as a magnet for litterbugs.

country life litter campaign

The terrifying statistics:

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  • Thirty million tons of rubbish are collected from England’s streets each year—enough to fill Wembley Stadium four times over; cleaning up Britain costs nearly £1 billion a year
  • Cigarette butts can take up to 12 years to break down and a plastic bag up to 20 years to decompose fully
  • Every year, the Highways Agency clears some 180,000 sacks of litter from motorways and A roads alone
  • It costs about £60,000 a year to clear chewing gum from a town centre; if a bird gets gum stuck in its beak, it will die
  • In 2013, 8.3 billion single-use plastic bags were handed out in the UK
  • There could be 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean, about 80% of which comes from the land—plastic takes eons (at least 450 years) to break down in seawater
  • More than 50% of landowners experience a case of fly-tipping every year; a Cornish farmer has had 100 gin bottles, 1,000 tyres and a rockery wishing well dumped on his land
  • In 2013, 33 tons of contaminated rubbish were dumped on the Enville estate in the West Midlands; they cost £7,000 to remove
  • In 2013/14, local authorities dealt with 852,000 fly-tipping incidents in England and Wales—nearly 100 dumps per hour—which cost some £45 million to clear up; there were 2,000 prosecutions
  • Fly-tipping costs Network Rail more than £2.3 million each year
  • Clearing litter costs Dartmoor National Park £20,000 a year; in the Lake District, ‘wild campers’ discard tents and sleeping bags; staff on the Pembrokeshire coast have to wear bio-hazard suits because there’s so much dog mess around Newport
  • Deputy NFU president Minette Batters had a cow die after eating wire from a Chinese sky lantern— the NFU and CLA want them banned—and in 2013, a farm in West Sussex had 28 land on it, some of which were still alight
  • The RSPCA receives 7,000 calls a year about animals injured by litter
  • An RSPB study found that 95% of fulmars washed up dead on the North Sea coast had ingested plastic
  • Although loo paper disintegrates in seconds—not that we want that lying around, either—wet wipes take far longer
  • About 10% of balloons return to Earth intact, jeopardising wildlife; some 1.2 million balloon scraps have washed up during the past 25 years
  • Volunteers on the 2013 Beachwatch Big Weekend found 7,395 drinks bottles and 14,376 caps and lids; last year, 2,457 items were collected per kilometre
country life litter campaign

More than just aesthetics: not only does litter affect the beauty of our countryside, it is also potentially fatal for wildlife.

Country Life’s five-point National Litter Strategy:

  1. Education programmes for schools to demonstrate the shocking cost of litter to wildlife, the environment and society. We need a new generation to be disgusted
  2. A business rate on permanent takeaway food outlets, earmarked for a clean-up fund
  3. A national clean-up day, supported by Government and industry
  4. Councils to be fined if they fail to meet quarterly cleaning targets and the money raised to be redeployed directly into litter clearing by a task force
  5. The polluter must pay. Littering is difficult to police, especially with the demise of the local bobby, but the number of prose- cutions needs to rise from the current paltry level

Litter and the law:

  • Litter bugs can be fined up to £2,500—if caught
  • Drivers of cars from which litter is chucked are now liable
  • Authorities now have broader powers to seize vehicles suspected of being involved in fly-tipping

What you can do:

Somehow, we need to change attitudes, and that starts at school, where we need to fire up the younger generation to think litter is as uncool as smoking and drinking have become.

In the meantime, ask your friendly, would-be MPs what they’re going to do about it when they pop round canvassing for your vote during the weeks running up to the election.