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Monitoring litter to help keep Scotland beautiful

A blog post by Connie McNeill

Connie McNeill
Assistant Survey Officer

Posted 12/11/2019

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What we see affects how we feel. This may seem like it goes without saying, however the impact of our surroundings on our daily lives is often not appreciated. Clean open spaces, streets and towns help to improve our sense of wellbeing, whereas heavily littered areas can devalue these places. It’s important to understand the issues on our streets and how they change geographically and over time.

This is where I come in. My job is to monitor issues such as litter, dog fouling and flytipping across the whole of Scotland using a national benchmarking system called the Local Environmental Audit and Management System (LEAMS). This system allows local authorities to efficiently tackle environmental quality issues and can guide new projects and campaigns, as well as help in advising policy.

Over the last two years, we have been working with Zero Waste Scotland and APSE to support the trial of a new litter monitoring methodology (LMS) and software solution to reflect the new Code of Practice (2018).

So how does the current system work? Three LEAMS surveys are completed in each local authority every year, two by the local authority and one by Keep Scotland Beautiful (AKA me). Within each local authority area, 5% of streets are selected at random and then surveyed. Last year alone, with some help from the rest of my team, I surveyed over 6,000 streets!

Once the streets have been selected, I map an efficient route to survey all of them. As we survey all over Scotland, the order I do the surveys is planned out in advance. I liaise with each local authority to see if they want to join and then arrange any necessary accommodation and travel.

Once everything is arranged I’m ready to go out and survey. A typical day involves planning a route to follow and then surveying 25-50 streets. At each street I walk a 50m transect of each side. I assess the amount and type of litter and grade the site from Grade A to Grade D, where C and D are classed as unacceptable.  I also record other environmental indicators such as graffiti, gum and vandalism as well as the litter source. I take photos to show the variety of different grades and streets. The example photos show streets with a Grade A and B (which are acceptable), and a street with a Grade C (unacceptable). This method is then repeated for the rest of the streets within the local authority area.

Grade A

Grade B

Grade C

Travelling across Scotland for work has some unexpected bonuses – for example getting to know the location of all the good cafes, public toilets and petrol stations! I have also had the opportunity to visit some great destinations from the Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis to Robert Burns House in Dumfries.

There are a lot of different types of litter on Scotland’s streets. Cigarette litter is very common, as well as crisp packets, cans, bottles and fast food packaging. Other more unusual items include Christmas trees, kitchen implements and occasionally a single shoe.

Once all the streets have been surveyed, and the data is collected into a spreadsheet, we make a report which highlights any issues or improvements. This gives a performance indicator with the overall percentage of acceptable streets. It also details how this score relates to previous years and breaks down the different environmental indicators, as well as litter sources.

Data collection is important as it allows us to see trends over time. LEAMS is the current national indicator for street cleanliness, so the collection of this data in Scotland is of great importance. My team are involved in reviewing different ways of monitoring litter to make sure we use the most effective and appropriate methods. Having this information can highlight issues such as an increase in litter, which in turn can have knock-on impact on other areas, such as the amount of litter in our seas – 80% of which starts on land.

Generally, there has been a decline in overall performance across Scotland. Our most recent report shows local environmental quality in Scotland has reached its lowest point in over a decade. This is driven by a complex combination of factors and continues to have a negative effect on daily lives in Scotland. Cuts in local authority budgets are one aspect of the problem and unfortunately don’t seem to be changing in the immediate future. People choose a lot of food on the go which has a lot of packaging, as do many other items in modern society, this also has a negative impact issues such as litter.

We have several campaigns running to work to reverse this trend in environmental quality. Our Spring Clean 19 campaign ran during March and April this year and saw more 40,000 people helping to clean up the country. We are working on reducing marine litter with our Upstream Battle campaign running along the river Clyde. We are also working on reducing littering on our roadsides and were pleased with the announcement that legislation will be brought forward to address littering from vehicles.

This is an issue which should be tackled in partnership, and going forward we plan to do this alongside Zero Waste Scotland and all 32 Scottish local authorities, because together we need to keep Scotland beautiful.

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