Britain has a problem with litter. Despite several decades of “keep Britain tidy”, it seems that you can’t go anywhere without coming across discarded food wrappers and drinks bottles.
Some councils have used shame tactics to try to reduce littering, such as these signs from Stratford-upon-Avon and Southampton, respectively.
Locally, North Stoneham Church has used biblical quotes to address a problem of fly-tipping (or “extreme littering”) outside their gate. The footnote advises that the winking emoji may not have been in the original text.
But all is not lost. There is a small army of unsung heroes who have taken it upon themselves to pick litter from local streets and parks. “Litter Picking Lovelies”, the Hampshire Refillery calls them.
By chance, Chandlers Ford Today managed to catch up with this Litter Picking Lovely on his early morning round.
Chandlers Ford Today: What got you started with litter picking?
Litter Picking Lovely: Since lockdown, I’ve been working from home, and I’ve been going for a walk each morning before work. It’s actually a well-being thing; it separates work life from home life and means that the first thing I think when waking up is not “what have I got to do at work today” but “where shall I walk today”. I noticed how much rubbish was strewn about the streets and decided that rather than tutting at the behaviour of people, I could do something positive. I was going for a walk anyway, so it didn’t cost me any more time. I just needed a pair of gloves and a couple of bags.
CFT: Yes, I noticed the rubber gloves. Why pink?
LPL: Ha ha. Originally, I wore disposable gloves, but realised that throwing a pair away each day was adding to the general rubbish and plastic problem. So I replaced them with a reusable pair that I wash when I get home. And pink is the only colour that Tesco has in my size.
CFT: And two pedal-bin size bags. Wouldn’t a larger rubbish sack hold more, and be stronger?
LPL: Smaller bags are easier to put into rubbish bins. And limiting myself to two bags stops me from getting carried away – I do have to remember to get home to start work.
CFT: How long does it take to fill them?
LPL: I walk a different route each day, and it varies on where I go. Some mornings I can fill both bags within 600 yards. Other days I can walk a mile and fill only one.
CGT: what do you dislike about litter?
LPL: Apart from looking unsightly, it is bad for the environment. We know that plastic never degrades and that it gets into the food chain. We’ve seen distressing photos of hedgehogs with heads stuck inside baked beans cans, or with elastic face masks trapped around their bodies. But a lot of rubbish gets washed into drains. I’m sure that this can block the drains and cause localised flooding.
CFT: Why do you think people drop litter?
LPL: To be honest, I think it is just laziness. Most of the litter I pick up is within sight of a rubbish bin. People just can’t be bothered to walk a few yards to dispose of it properly. Personally, I can’t understand why, if a food wrapper is OK to carry when it has food in, it suddenly becomes too awkward when it is empty. You can see in the following two photos how close a bin can be to a pile of litter. In fact, in the second one there is a bin at the other end of they alley too. So, unless they climbed over the buildings, the culprits must have walked past one on their way home.
CFT: Is part of the problem that there aren’t enough rubbish bins?
LPL: Not at all. There are dozens of bins around my usual patches. I know where they all are, as I need to get to one when my bag gets full (and quickly if it starts to split). Some bins get fuller that others, but there is always an empty one not far away. It should be a simple message: if there is no bin, or the bin is full, take your rubbish home. Overflowing bins encourage scavenging wildlife, which is bad for them and bad for the area. The mess around this bin was caused by a gull – I watched it do it.
CFT: What is the most common type of rubbish you pick up?
LPL: Food and drink wrappers, without a doubt. Mostly shop-bought ready-to-eat food – sandwiches, crisps, and soft drinks. Following that is fast food detritus and empty alcohol containers. In the last couple of weeks I have found more discarded face masks than before. I don’t know whether that is a sign that more people who previously stayed at home are now going out. Or that people are taking face masks but then deciding that they don’t need them.
CFT: And what is the most unusual?
LPL: Probably a row of uncooked sausages on a disposable barbeque. There was no one else around, and it looked as if it had been there all night. I’d love to know what the story behind that was. Though, as it was still on a barbeque stand, I’m not sure it technically counted as litter!
CFT: Could we have a litter-free environment, and what do we have to do to get there?
LPL: I was once told that birds’ feet are designed so that the claws grasp when the muscles relax. That’s how they don’t fall off perches. Maybe in several thousand years, evolution will make human hands operate the same way, so holding on to things is the default, rather than dropping them. Until then, I think it really comes down to education and social pressure. Dropping litter needs to become socially unacceptable.
CFT: Isn’t that a bit utopian?
LPL: I don’t think so. When I was a child, most alleyways were liberally covered with dog mess. One pathway in my town was nicknamed “dog poo alley” (or something like that) for that reason. Today, most dog owners pick up after their pooches and you rarely see dog mess. So, it can be done. But I do have a bit of a utopian hope in that if I clear an area of litter, people are less likely to drop any more – on the basis that people won’t make a clean area dirty, but think that if it is already covered with litter, one more crisp packet won’t matter. But that hope doesn’t seem to work in practice! I pick up the same litter from the same places day after day.
CFT: And anything you would like to do differently?
LPL: Having more Litter Picking Lovelies would be great. Sometimes I get thanked for my efforts by passers-by or local residents. Although I accept the gratitude, I can’t help thinking “not being funny, but this is outside your house; you could have picked it up yourself!”. My other disappointment is that I don’t have the capacity to separate recyclable and non-recyclable rubbish. Everything I pick ends up in the same bin.