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It’s time to consign our litter problem to the dustbin of history

A blog post by Lindsay Montgomery CBE, FRSE

The quality of the places we live, work and visit matter to us all. We know that badly littered and graffitied communities are linked to people reporting poorer physical and mental health, that poor environmental quality increases peoples fear of crime, and that it is detrimental to Scotland’s economic development. 

More worryingly our latest report on the issue - Local environmental quality in decline - highlights that litter, flytipping and graffiti levels are increasing more severely and at a faster rate in our most deprived communities – and that over a million people are now more negatively impacted by the state of the places they live in and open spaces they visit.

The fact that Scotland has a litter problem has been apparent to some us for many years. It’s the most obvious manifestation of our “throw-away society”.  

Despite the best efforts of national government, councils, public bodies, communities and the third sector Scotland’s litter levels are getting worse – driven by a complex combination of factors, including a lack of strategic priority, a fragmented approach to tackling the problem, changes in our consumption habits, unacceptable individual behaviour and reductions in public expenditure.

In fact, the latest local government benchmarking report demonstrates the huge challenges facing councils, for example over the last six years there has been a 30% decline in budgets for street cleansing operations. Yet, as a country we’re producing more packaging and consuming more on-the-go so it is little wonder that overall litter levels are on the rise. 

This is not a simple problem to solve. Everyone, national and local government, industry, the third sector, and communities, have a collaborative part to play to arrest this decline.  

The good news is that government is taking action. Hardly a week goes by without another initiative being brought forward to tackle an element of our unsustainable consumption and disregard for valuable waste items which often end up littered. 

Initiatives on coffee cups, single use plastic bottles, and straws are welcome; action by communities and individuals to clear up and build pride in their neighbourhoods are welcome too; but what is now critical is that we all take steps to live more sustainably.  

Industry needs to do more to identify ways to reduce unnecessary packaging and ensure that what is used is easily recycled and has no hidden wider environmental consequences.  There is a need to radically overhaul our infrastructure and recycling collection facilities so we can process our own waste in our own country. 

Above all we need to improve the way we provide information to people to help them do the right thing.  We need consistent and accurate messages to communicate so that people can really drive behaviour change through informed choices. 

Reassuringly, the public are supportive of measures being brought forward - for the first-time people are seeing the global challenge of litter, especially plastic, which until now has been seen as a second-rate environmental problem.

In this year of young people, it is the next generation that must be at the forefront of the battle for change, and who will live with the consequences if we don’t meet the ambitions of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Global Goal 12. 

Yet, if every sector plays its part, and we fit all the crucial pieces of the jigsaw together, then real tangible changes in individual behaviour, and improvements in local environmental standards will not be far behind. 

This will need strategic leadership, drive and commitment to be successful in achieving what is now a global ambition; to live more sustainably and keep our places beautiful.  The time for action is now. 


First published in The Herald, March 2018

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