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An opinion piece from our CEO Derek Robertson - An upstream battle against litter

Something big is starting to happen across the country. It’s long overdue, and something that we have been campaigning on for years. We are, at last, starting to see meaningful attention paid to the amount of litter that is plaguing our roads, towns and rivers. It seems that the relevant stakeholders we require to take action have acknowledged that it’s no longer acceptable to have their heads in the sand.

Sir David Attenborough has had a big part to play too. The conclusion to his Blue Planet series was jaw-droppingly shocking to all who viewed it. He clearly demonstrated what we have known for a while, that the scale of our misuse of resources is having a shocking impact on our seas. Huge islands of plastic blown around is an appalling testament to our waste of resources, and our carelessness in disposing of them. A nation, and a world, which assumed that dropping a drink can or bottle was somehow invisible, has been confronted with the global impact of that irresponsibility. We owe the programme makers a debt of gratitude for the wake-up call.

For the truth is that waste slopping around in mid ocean is not because of someone else’s actions. Generally, litter that ends up in the seas starts as litter in our communities – a significant share of it being plastic bottles and cans blowing from our streets and roads into rivers, canals and lochs – eventually finding its way to sea.  Collectively, we must recognise that we can no longer hide from the end consequences of littering when we think no one else was watching. Frankly, now the world is watching, that should spur us all on to action, every single one of us.

For more than half a century, we have worked to raise awareness of litter and the wider impacts it has on society.  We’ve battled against our increasing throw-a-way culture, budget cuts and lethargy for tacking the issue. We’ve also brought attention to the annual clean-up costs, estimated to exceed a staggering £1m a week in Scotland. And that is before we consider the unsustainable consumption that is eating up the world’s natural resources.

We have identified the sheer scale of the problem. Our streets and green spaces are more littered again this year than last, and the last two years have seen a huge decline in standards of cleanliness, particularly in our most deprived communities.

And our roadside litter campaign, where we have been joined by roads operators, councils, motoring organisations and industry, has identified that over 70% of roads are littered, with plastic drinks items and food on-the-go packaging being recorded in vast numbers. Simply put, too many assume that they can tidy their vehicle by chucking their litter out of the window on to our streets and roadsides. How many of us can say they have seen that?

In recent months we’ve seen increased interest from the Scottish Government, industry and individuals to take real action and work to solve our litter problem. Something big is happening – from political action being proposed to address many single use items such as straws, cotton bud sticks, cups and drinks containers, to industry investing in national litter campaigns, to the people of Scotland cleaning up the country in increased numbers – up 30% since this time last year. This is clearly a step in the right direction but we have a long way to go.

There is no doubt we need to capitalise on these changes – we need much more action from all sectors, government, industry and individuals - if we are to really address our growing litter problem.

The Scottish Government has a great opportunity to make improved links between increasing litter levels on land and at its impact at sea. Greater alignment between Scotland’s five-year National Litter Strategy and the Marine Litter Plan would surely make sense, after all they are both focused on litter prevention and behaviour change. The need for review and action is so urgent, that we must back these strategies up with meaningful resource to help deliver them, rather than just talk about them.

It is also time that the producers – those that manufacture the bottles and cans, the products and packaging to meet our on-the-go lifestyle - got their act together.  All over the world, producer responsibility for waste is becoming the norm, and that will happen here too. So, no longer will producers and retailers be able to divorce themselves from the sight of their products polluting our streets, rivers and ultimately our seas. As the pressure builds for real action some responsible businesses are now willing to engage and play their part, but they are by far in the minority. We are insisting that all producers in the UK do more to influence their customers to stop littering.

While we’re at it, we need a joint effort from all to communicate with the public on the need for our behaviour to change – we can all chose to reuse a water bottle, a cup for coffee or to recycle more. This is not about blame, this is about change – changing products, consumption and attitudes.

We are all contributing to the growing waste mountain on land and in our seas. As individuals, we all need to start making choices that deliver different outcomes.  We need to recognise that it is the choices we make when we buy things that result in the end waste product, a high percentage of which is littered. We must create a culture where dropping a plastic drinks bottle in our towns and open spaces is as unacceptable as drink driving. We have to change our behaviour to make that happen.

The drive for change has started - charges for carrier bags, progress on deposit return schemes and moves on plastic straws are all welcome individually, but the scourge of ocean litter is a sign that more significant action is required – and that we need to look further upstream at ways to tackle the plastic pollution in our seas.

Action needs to be coordinated, determined, and backed with resources. 

As we look forward to another summer season where we can enjoy our open spaces, let’s understand that whilst we can and must ask others - including government and producers - to do more, at least part of the solution lies with each of us individually.

Finally, if we consider the value of our country’s natural beauty to tourism and our wider economy we can’t afford to sit back.  We must collectively harness the energy around the issue now so that Scotland doesn’t become one of the dirtiest countries in Europe.

First published in The Daily Mail, 28 March 2018

28 March 2018

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