Unmasking a looming litter emergency

A blog post by Barry Fisher

Barry Fisher
Chief Executive

Posted 14/12/2020

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I’m a creature of habit and walking the same route with the family dog most days during lockdown it became starkly apparent to me when a newly littered item was added to the growing accumulation that is slowly, but surely burying Scotland.  And, it wasn’t just me that started to more acutely notice my surroundings, to value them and to become agitated by those that didn’t connect their actions to the places they were finding solace in. Many of those we work with, and support, were also becoming aware of an increasing disregard for the places where we live, work and play.

The highly emotive images of our beauty spots being trashed by new visitors to the countryside this summer raised the profile of an issue we have, quite frankly, been banging on about for years.  Litter.  Flytipping.  Dog fouling.  Any elected member will know tell you that these are the issues which often dominate their inboxes.  In fact, recently published data from the Scottish Household Survey revealed animal nuisance and rubbish/litter lying around as being the two most commonly perceived neighbourhood problems across Scotland as a whole in 2019, with levels of concern over the latter rising to levels not seen in at least 15 years.

And, the problem, highlighted at some of our most iconic parks, loch-sides and mountains, this summer remind us of the issue that our cities, towns and villages have increasingly been battling with for years.  While we positively reported improvements in 2013, things have been slowly, but steadily getting worse, with results between 2018 and 2020 highlighting that, across most indicators of local environmental quality, standards have dropped to levels not observed in any of the previous years of national monitoring.

The increase in litter, dog fouling, weeds and graffiti has been steeper in our most deprived communities - and now, 49% of people in deprived areas see litter as a problem in their neighbourhood compared to19% in less deprived areas. The evidence shows that the decline is also likely to be having hugely detrimental effects across a broad range of policy objectives, in areas such as physical wellbeing, tourism, local regeneration, mental health and crime and the perception of crime:

There are many complex reasons behind this decline: an absence of strategic and coordinated action across all sectors; an ongoing decline in funding available to tackle the issue; and large-scale, long term societal trends around consumption, convenience and single use.    These partnered with the ‘lockdown effect’ associated with a pandemic mean that we need to act now to address the disrespectful behaviour which causes the problem.

The facts are indisputable – we face a potential litter emergency.

The increasingly visible new litter type – the single use face mask – has become a symbol of our disregard for Scotland and our fellow citizens.  The simple truth is that we need to all start questioning our own habits – what we consume, what we throw away, and how we look after our local neighbourhoods – and we need to address the looming litter emergency head on by changing our own behaviours and working together with key partners, to build on the successes of this year – because yes, there have been many.

#CovidLitter - the single use face mask

We don’t want to just moan about the problem, we want to be able to support people and organisations who actually want to make a difference – whether that be cleaning up, surveying, delivering localised on the ground campaigns, or raising the issue politically to highlight the scale and depth of the problem and what needs to be done to actually harness public concern and turn it into a movement, a wave of change that makes the illegal behaviours at the root of the incivility unacceptable.

More widely, as a charity working to combat climate change too, we know that we must encourage respect and support people to look after the places that they love locally if we are to have any hope of solving the global climate and nature crises. Tackling litter can help the latter.

Our report Time for a new approach to tackling litter’ not only spells out the horrifying facts, but it also recommends a bold revised approach to safeguarding and improving the beauty and cleanliness of Scotland’s local environments.  It outlines an eight-point cross sector agenda for change to tackle the complex interlinking problems leading to the decline. This includes calls for an: education and behaviour change programme to create a Scotland that is truly litter-ate; a review of the failing model of enforcement; and further collaboration to bring together a reinvigorated Scottish network to jointly reverse the decline.

We now believe it is necessary for all key stakeholders to recognise we are facing the prospect of a litter emergency if we are to successfully fight back against the historic and current decline in the environmental condition of our neighbourhoods. Our work has never been more needed.

No one organisation or individual can solve this – we know what our part is, and how we are going to invest our time over the next three years.   But we need everyone to join us to make our communities, businesses and individuals truly litter-ate so we can address the behaviours driving this decline.

Our challenge to you, put simply, is what are you going to do to prevent a litter emergency?

Read the current and past reports here and listen to our Green Talk podcast here or find it on your favourite podcast platform.

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