Britain’s growing litter problem: why is it so bad and how to take action

From the verges of rural roads to mountain tops, litter is a big problem in the countryside. Here we investigate Britain's growing litter problem and the solutions to help keep our green spaces clean.

Beach litter UK (Getty)

From the verges of rural roads to mountain tops, litter is a big problem in the countryside.  Few things annoy visitors to the great outdoors more than rubbish, yet the problem remains. What can we do to keep our green spaces clean?

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.

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Is the UK’s litter problem 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.

What litter gets left?

According to Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the three major culprits are fast-food packaging, confectionary wrappers and soft and alcoholic drinks bottles made from plastic, tin or glass. Other items include energy gel sachets and tubes, food leftovers and dog excrement.

There is little worse than visiting a beautiful place such as a national park and seeing litter; it detracts from the inspiration the place should give us.
George Monck, chief executive of CleanupUK

Impact on wildlife

The RSPB and Keep Britain Tidy say shrews, bank voles, wood mice and other animals can get stuck or die within discarded bottles; they can also choke on ‘yokes’ – the ring pulls on cans. “A lot has been written about plastic and rightly so,” says CPRE litter programme director Samantha Harding. “But the risk is people simply shift from using plastic – because they don’t want to be criticised – and use and throw away other packaging instead.”

What I can’t get out my mind is the vast amount of ‘stuff’, such as sweet wrappers, that you find just everywhere.
Samantha Harding of CRPE

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.
Beach cleanup volunteer using claw to pick up litter on beach
Beach cleanup volunteer using claw to pick up litter on beach

How do we pay for the clean-up

“It’s shocking that local councils are paying for the waste management and disposal when the costs should fall on the producers of the packaging,” believes CPRE’s Samantha Harding. “The packaging industry has never fully accepted it has to change its behaviour. Fast-food companies always say how much they do to educate their customers but they don’t take responsibility to reduce packaging in the first place.”

The Packaging Federation: “The best way to deal with litter is to improve on-the-go infrastructure and heavier fines for those who do litter. The failure of local authorities to enforce fines is deplorable.”

McDonald’s: The company says its clean-up events walk around 150,000 miles a year in the UK. It also supports education policies by litter charities that encourage people to bin rubbish and recycle.

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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.

In December 2016, 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”.

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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 statistics 

  • 226 million cigarette butts are discarded in England every year 
  • £1 billion – the estimated cost of picking up litter in Britain in 2015
  • 11,212 bottles and cans were collected in 2018’s month-long CPRE Green Clean Campaign
  • 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.
  • £2.3 million is spend by Network Rail annually to clear fly tipping from its land.  

What can be done?

Local authorities employ litter pickers to clear city streets but this is impractical in the wider reaches of the countryside. CPRE says the key is to use economics to incentivise people and companies to do the right, rather than the wrong thing. “The plastic-bag charge did more than we could have done in 20 years of persuading people,” says Samantha Harding of CPRE. “The same would happen with a bottle deposit.” The Government is expected to “imminently” launch a consultation on a deposit-return system for cans and bottles of all materials (glass, aluminium and plastic) along with “disposable cups filled at the point of sale”.

“It’s to do with behavioural economics – in life, people just don’t like being told what to do. You have to find more subtle ways to nudge behaviour,” says George Monck of CleanupUK.

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.


Tips to help keep green spaces clean

1

Take your rubbish home

On a visit to the countryside, always take your rubbish home with you. It may sound obvious, but it is surprising how many people don’t.

2

Reduce your packaging

Ensure your picnics use the least amount of packaging. Bring sandwiches in reusable containers rather than cling film, use a refillable bottle and avoid products in plastic.

3

Pick up rubbish you find

If you see a discarded crisp packet, can, bottle or any litter when out and about, pick it up. Keep a bag and protective gloves in your rucksack for litter-picking emergencies

4

Spread the word

Tell others what you do and encourage them to respect the countryside. Post on your social media feeds about litter-picks you’ve done, and share recycling information.

5

Talk to fast-food chains

Tell others what you do and encourage them to respect the countryside. Post on your social media feeds about litter-picks you’ve done, and share recycling information.

6

Organise your own litter pick

Organise your own litter pick in your local area and ask your neighbours and friends to get involved, too. It’s a great activity that can help to build community pride, and sets a good example for children.

7

Join an event near you

Join CPRE’s Green Clean to litter pick in your local area. Launched last year, Green Clean runs for the month of September and involves local groups collecting rubbish in the countryside.

8

Support national schemes

Support CPRE and other litter organisations, such as Keep Britain Tidy. They campaign for proven solutions, such as the deposit-return system for drinks cans and bottles.


Case study: The Llangattock litter Pickers, Powys

Llangattock Litter Pickers is a community group of around 18 volunteers, set up 10 years ago. “We were just a group of people having a whinge in the village, and decided to do something,” says co-founder Michael Butterfield. The group goes out six days a month to clear verges on 160 miles of A and B roads in an area covering Talybont-on-Usk to Crickhowell in South Wales. They wear high-visibility clothing and are prepared to collect on stretches of busy roads. Butterfield estimates they have reduced littering by around 50% over the years. “Litter attracts litter. Communities have just become used to roadside verges attracting litter,” he adds. “I feel responsible that I hand the baton over to my children for a cleaner world.
The uplift you get from litter picking is amazing.”

A key element of a community litter-picking group is it attracts interest: “People ask what you are doing and they join in. The message gets spread,” says CPRE’s Samantha Harding.

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How to get involved

Target single-use-plastic litter and join Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British Spring Clean, 22 March – 23 April. Register at keepbritaintidy.org