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Shifting up a gear on Scotland’s roadside litter problem

A blog post by Derek Robertson

It is often said that you can judge a society by what it throws away, and the public policy attention now focusing on plastic bottles, food packaging, a deposit return scheme and the circular economy is a welcome consequence of that. But you can also judge a society by how it disposes of its litter, and any time spent driving around Scotland will quickly give you the impression that we have become very careless in how we discard that which we don’t need.

Look at almost any verge at the side of the road, any roundabout or motorway slip-road, and you’ll see a large amounts of litter discarded by those who are intent on keeping their cars clean, yet dirtying our roadsides.

Our charity Keep Scotland Beautiful has been tackling the issue of roadside litter for almost two years - leading on a campaign founded by a coalition of some of the biggest names in soft drinks and convenience foods - determined to turn the tide on the thoughtless discarding of litter on our roads. We’ve had a simple message for drivers and their passengers - Give your litter a lift. Take it home! 

At its heart, this is a problem caused by individual behaviour; a proportion of road users who are happy to trade littered roadsides for a clean car interior. The first phase of our campaign has had the effect of significantly raising the profile of the issue, and now 86% of the Scottish population agree with us that the country has a problem with the scale of litter at the side of our roads. It is little wonder, when 50 tonnes of litter are lifted from Scotland’s roadsides every month. Yet, despite that massive clean-up effort, the problem keeps growing and 91% agree with us that it creates a negative impression of Scotland for visitors.

We need to do more, and in the next phase of our Anti-Roadside Litter campaign, we will start to turn up the heat on those whose thoughtless actions on Scotland’s roads are at the root of the problem. Almost two years into our campaign, it’s clear to us that the solution comes in three parts.

Firstly, we need to inform and educate all road users of the true scale of impact arising from their disrespect for our environment. Too often, they seem blind to the impact of throwing that plastic bottle or cup from their window – both on our environment and communities and those who put their lives at risk to clean it up. We need to change that.

Secondly, we need to work on improved infrastructure to make responsible disposal of litter as straightforward as possible - whether that is disposing or recycling on the go or taking litter home. We have had outstanding success with our car litter bags, encouraging people to give their litter a lift home, but even more substantial impact will be delivered by improved bin infrastructure. This can mean better servicing and maintenance of existing bins or better placement of bins too, with some of our research yielding mounting evidence that, in remote locations, removing bins can be the best strategy as they end up creating more litter than they capture. We’re working with a range of public agencies and the private sector to make responsible disposal easy and to encourage more people to take their litter home. This needs to be the new norm for our society. We also need to encourage haulers and other fleet managers to hold their drivers to account.

And finally, we need to deliver on enforcement. This cannot all be about positive encouragement, it has to have a harder edge too. Causing litter is wrong, but it is also illegal. Fixed penalty notices can be issued to those littering whilst walking through town centres. But we need to give prosecutors the tools necessary to bring action against those who litter from their cars too. This is already happening in other countries where the registered keeper of the vehicle is liable for any litter thrown from the car.  

Work needs to start now on the steps necessary to deliver that change. We will continue to engage with the Scottish Government and other key stakeholders such as Transport Scotland, local authorities and transport and tourism operators to make sure we’re tackling this problem effectively.

Yes, we will continue to provide information and education on the consequences, and yes, we will fight for better bin infrastructure, but now is the time when we need to start using the stick as well as the carrot to change behaviours and to make our roadsides cleaner.


First published in The Scotsman, 20 November 2018

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