Behind the headlines: Britain’s litter problem

Last year, there were 900,000 incidents of fly tipping. So who is doing it, and what can be done? BBC Countryfile Magazine investigates.

Illegal dumping of refuse in a forest.

What’s the story


Littering and fly-tipping create the proverbial blot on the landscape. Earlier this year, TV presenter Chris Packham unveiled a series of images showing how discarded tins, crisp packets and other rubbish was harmful to red squirrels, hedgehogs, birds and other wildlife.

What is litter?

There is no legal definition of litter, but it includes anything from crisps to takeaway cartons to discarded bags of rubbish and dog waste. Keep Britain Tidy says that even apple cores and banana skins should be taken home for food waste recycling. Fly-tipping, including larger, white goods such as refrigerators and toasters, is defined as the illegal deposit of waste on land, contrary to Section 33(1)(a) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Is it getting worse?

According to the Local Environment Quality survey, the amount of litter has remained consistent. Last year, littering of food and soft drinks on the go went up, while dog fouling and plastic bags declined, the latter after the 5p charge on plastic bags was introduced in England. The Litter Action group said 59% of its volunteers reported the problem of rural litter was “more than they could deal with” in 2014, up from 46% in 2012.

Who litters?

“The crux of the problem is that all sorts of people litter all sorts of items for all sorts of reasons” says Samantha Harding, the director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s litter campaign. “Men aged 18-25 often see it as cool to drop litter, but hauliers, smokers, users of fast food outlets and drive-through takeaways and commuters are all groups of society who litter”.

Nearly two-thirds of fly tipping involves household waste. Household disposal services – small businesses that offer to take away household waste and simply dump – also contribute. “Householders need to know that ignorance is not an excuse under the law – they will be liable for prosecution if their goods are found in flytipping” says Allison Ogden-Newton, chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy.

The most common place for fly tipping is on highways, which accounted for 48% of all incidents in 2014/15. Fly-tipping on footpaths, bridleways and back alleyways increased by 3.2% in England. Nearly a third of all incidents consisted of a quantity of material equivalent to a ‘small van load’.

Keep Britain Tidy says 25% of smokers do not think discarding a cigarette butt is littering.

Why does litter matter?

  • Danger to wildlife The RSPCA receives 7,000 calls a year about litter-related incidents, from badger cubs with plastic can holders embedded in their necks to hedgehogs with their heads wedged in empty tins.
  • Unattractive Litter is unsightly – it ruins views, river walks, countryside rambles and drives.
  • Contamination Fly-tipping of garden waste can allow invasives such as Japanese knotweed to spread. 
  • Increases negative behaviour “Littering reduces people’s sense of well-being and attracts crime”, says Ogden-Newton of Keep Britain Tidy. The famous ‘Broken Windows’ theory posits that littering and vandalism create an atmosphere of disarray and lawlessness, encouraging greater criminal behaviour.
  • Diminished land An area degraded by rubbish becomes less visited, footpaths become neglected and, says Campaign for Rural England (CPRE), can lead to the land being brought for development.
  • Cost £7m is spent on clearing up litter and £56m on removing chewing gum from pavements. In 2014/15, local authorities in England spent nearly £50million on clearing fly tipping.

Cuts to local services

A Heritage Lottery Fund in 2014, ‘Renaissance to Risk?’, found that 86% of parks managers have had budgets cut since 2010. According to the Rethinking Parks Programme, this means irregular cleaning of play areas and fewer park staff, leading to more anti-social behaviour.

Funding for cleaning rural roads and roads other than major highways was cut by £74m between 2010 and 2014. “If someone drops a bottle on a street in a city, someone is paid to pick it up. The chances of a bottle in a hedgerow being collected is almost zero”, says CPRE’s Harding.

What is the Government doing?

In 2014/15, local authorities carried out nearly 515,000 enforcement actions for fly tipping at a cost of £17.6 million. “Local government does most of the heavy lifting”, says Ogden-Newton of Keep Britain Tidy.

Last December, the Government announced its National Litter Strategy, working with local authorities, campaign groups and businesses to create community payback schemes that focus on litter removal, to give councils new power to tackle small-scale fly tipping and to review the case for higher fixed penalties for littering. “I don’t think it matters if the fines are £150 or £1,000” says Harding of CPRE. “We need more consistent enforcement”. Ogden-Newton described the government’s decision to stop funding the Local Environment Quality Survey as “odd. It means you can talk about the problem, but you won’t know exactly what it is”.

What can people do about it?

Keep Britain Tidy points out that it has never been easier to recycle or dispose of goods: local authority amenity sites take almost any household item and many companies are now required to accept end-of-life white goods for recycling. It works with 7,000 schools on an Ecoo School project, which places an emphasis on caring for the environment.

“If it was easy it would have been solved long ago”, says Harding. “Trying to persuade people to have pride in their community is a hard road to follow. You can sometimes change behaviour by putting in place measures such as the 5p bag charge or deposits on bottles. It’s complex and requires a nuanced approach”.

Keep Britain Tidy has issued more than 2,000 Green Flag notices to local authorities who successfully tackle littering, “the highest figure on record”, says Ogden-Newton. The organisation’s Love Parks scheme draws upon 14,000 volunteers who help maintain parks, while 60,000 people in England are believed to volunteer to clear up litter.

What is thrown away?

Keep Britain Tidy has run the Local Environment Quality survey for the past 13 years. Of the 7,200 sites surveyed in England: 83% had smokers’ materials, 69% had confectionary packaging, 54% had soft drink tins and bottles, 24% had fast food items, 21% had snack packaging, 20% had discarded bottles of alcohol and 8% had broken glass.

Litter in numbers

  • 2.25 million pieces of litter are dropped on the streets every day [source: Symphony Environmental].
  • 180,000+ sacks of litter are cleared from motorways and major A roads each year by Highways England.
  • £1billion is the estimated cost of picking up litter in 2015 [source: CPRE].
  • 226 million cigarette butts are discarded every year [source: Keep Britain Tidy].
  • £2.3 million is spend by Network Rail annually to clear fly tipping from its land.  

Costing the Earth explores the litter problem: How is a throwaway society persuaded to use a bin? Chris Legard reports on anti-littering campaigns and meets David Sedaris, a man cleaning up his local streets. Available on BBC iPlayer. 

Article by Mark Rowe


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