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More work to be done for a litter free Scotland

A blog post by Barry Fisher

Barry Fisher
Chief Executive

Posted 01/12/2023

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To coincide with the publication of our two latest reports on public perception towards litter and local environmental quality, our CEO Barry Fisher has written about the need for a unified and aligned approach to tackling Scotland's litter emergency.

We recently launched our strategy outlining our ambition for Scotland to be litter free and have a circular economy. This isn’t new, nor indeed that radical but it remains central to our mission of making Scotland, clean, green and sustainable. Litter is the reason that our organisation came into being – to tackle one of the most persistent and damaging environmental issues within our communities.

We’ve always said that tackling litter is complicated. That it’s challenging. It’s expensive. And, often, it is frustrating for the huge numbers of us that care so much about the condition of our communities, towns, cities and beautiful landscapes. We know that there is no singular magic solution that will eradicate the blight of discarded waste across our country.  Despite the huge amount of effort from all sectors, the stats have not improved and in many cases they are getting worse, but we continue to focus on being positive about the difference that can be made and on seeking innovative solutions for the public, local government and for the private sector.

Today we’ve published two complementary reports which clearly reiterate that Scotland has a litter emergency. By doing so we hope that everyone reading these reports can see how improvements in the cleanliness of our streets, communities and landscapes can be seen as one of the best ways to practically express this pride and love for our country.

Scottish Litter Survey 2023

Tracking public perceptions and attitudes towards litter and littering behaviour.

New figures from this year’s Scottish Litter Survey – based on public perception polling we commissioned from Diffley Partnership – found that 90% of Scots agree that littering is a problem across Scotland – the third consecutive year that the majority of people have identified this problem, and the highest on record.

Sadly, this figure is similar when people are asked about their own local area, with this being higher in urban areas and among the least affluent neighbourhoods when compared to the most affluent. Our public polling also highlighted that about two-fifths of people (39%) believe litter in general has become more common in their local areas over the past year, with this perception being more pronounced in the least affluent neighbourhoods.

In our ground litter data report – How clean are our streets? – the national street litter cleanliness scores are slightly worse for 2022/23 when compared to pre-pandemic 2019/20 figures, with 75% of audited sites having litter on them as a result of pedestrians.

Worryingly, there are also new trends emerging as we start to look more closely at the significant categories of waste being littered.

As in past years, 50% of all littered items we record on the ground is smoking related. This year, for the first time, our on the ground surveys recorded that 6% of sites were affected by single-use vapes. And backing this up, the public polling highlighted single-use vapes are observed to be increasing at a faster rate than any other type of litter. Half of those asked said that they have noticed an increase in this type of litter in the past 12 months, with it being more common in urban areas, in less affluent neighbourhoods and amongst those aged 16-24.

But when you take smoking related litter out of the data set, 40% of the remaining litter recorded was identified as being in scope to be included in a proposed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system - including single-use plastic packaging for drinks, takeaway food items and confectionery.

How clean are our streets?

A report on ground litter revealing the depth and breadth of Scotland's litter emergency.

Once again the public polling backs this up, with a significant proportion of people reporting that food containers, wrapping and packaging (35%), plastic drinks bottles (31%), single-use (hot and cold) drink containers (29%), drinks cans (27%), and glass drinks bottles (17%) have become more common as litter over the past 12 months.

Since our inception we have repeatedly called for improved infrastructure to support people to do the right thing with their waste; better enforcement and a review of the broken system that has seen a decline in the number of fines issued and indeed paid over the years; and campaigns and initiatives to trigger changes in behaviour for each and every one of us.

The reality is that current behaviours and approaches are not enough to influence the trend of decline and imminent action is required. We don’t believe that this level of public dissatisfaction can be reduced in the current climate.

While we welcomed Scotland’s Litter and Flytipping Strategy this year and have been active in delivering the Year One Action Plan – including leading on engaging and empowering communities, developing and testing innovative interventions to tackle littering behaviours and continuing to collect and analyse litter data to support improvements in line with the Data Strategy – we know this is only a small step in the right direction. Unless we progress on all areas of the strategy these depressing stats will stagnate or get worse.

There is something else that is needed too: urgent policy and strategies that are adequately and meaningfully resourced.

We are hopeful that forthcoming policy, including the Circular Economy Bill, a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations and the proposals in Scotland for ground litter, will have a positive impact and help us and others in their efforts to tackle the litter emergency. But these measures must be implemented urgently without further delay.

Our data tells us that there is a large proportion of littered packaging items on the ground, and as part of a coordinated approach to tackle all litter we want to see the litter payments in EPR regulations directed to resource the necessary measures such as cleansing and infrastructure, as well as raising funds that put prevention at the heart of any plan for a litter-free nation.

Delayed policy implementation will no doubt impact our ability to reverse the trend of increasing litter levels. Our public polling outlined that 66% see plastic drinks bottles regularly, 62% say that they encounter littered drinks cans often and 32% reported seeing glass bottles on a regular basis. Additionally, this is also the third consecutive year where litter related to food and drink packaging has been the most common type of litter reported.

We know that people in Scotland are facing a number of issues, with healthcare and the cost of living established as the two most reported issues that Scots state in their top three priorities, but litter has a highly visible impact on our environment, and if 9 in 10 people think it is a problem in Scotland it is clearly impacting how we feel about where we live, work and visit. 

We have a job to do and we need a collectively owned national mission to turn the tide.

We know that tackling litter will lead to important, positive impacts on efforts to combat climate change and halt biodiversity loss and we know the desire is there. Our data shows 82% of Scots want increased action to clean up litter locally. These figures have remained high over the past three years, indicating a clear and consistent desire from people to see action.

It is also encouraging to see that 94% of people say that they always make an effort to dispose of their rubbish responsibly when out and about and that around six in ten say that they always or often make an effort to switch to reusable products from single-use ones.  

We have hope. People care. Because of this we will continue to ensure our campaigns make it easy for people to do the right thing and to work with our partners, volunteers and relevant stakeholders to ensure that the litter emergency is taken seriously. We are committed to ensuring that all proposed policy and schemes move forward positively so that they play an active, measured and successful part in tackling litter and waste. 

Together we will tackle litter. I for one don’t want to be here highlighting these awful statistics on litter year after year. My team will continue to inspire action and accelerate progress towards a country that is litter free and has a circular economy.

We need to turn anger into action, mobilise the power of communities, business and local and national government and help everyone tackle this issue.

Everyone has a role to play – everyone can help us keep Scotland beautiful.

You can tackle the litter emergency and make Scotland cleaner, greener and more sustainable by organising a clean up as part of Spring Clean 2024, do a litter survey as part of our Upstream Battle campaign to help us understand more about litter where you live, and share our messages with your friends and family and colleagues.

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