Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Now here’s an idea. When you go into a takeaway food outlet, you should be charged a deposit on your cups, plates or burger boxes. You then take them back after you’ve finished your meal to get your money back.

The idea works with glass bottles, so why shouldn’t it work with disposal one-use receptacles? And why on earth am I asking this now?

Here in Wealden, rubbish is back in the news. In Hailsham in recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about whose responsibility it is to keep the town centre clean, particularly litter-free. And last month Wealden District Council launched ‘a crackdown on litter hot spots in Wealden’, with a news release saying the council’s Street Scene teams will be ‘getting tough on litter louts after an increase in the number of litter hot spots’ in Crowborough, Hailsham, Heathfield and Uckfield.

I suppose it’s just unfortunate that the post of Street Scene Team Leader has been vacant since mid-July. It did rather make me wonder whether someone in the controlling group on Wealden District Council has said, “Look fellas, we know tackling litter is popular among the public, so let’s say we’ll launch a crackdown, even if there’s not much we can do.”

That's probably being too cynical, but let’s be clear about one thing. Litter is a big problem, costing us far too much, locally and nationally. But efforts to collect litter in our towns and villages, while part of the solution, can only deal with the symptoms. If we’re seriously going to tackle the problem, we need to get inside people’s heads about why they drop litter.

Because the fact is that far too many people think it’s entirely acceptable to drop whatever they’ve finished with wherever they’re standing, sitting or walking.

Only last week I was coming out of Uckfield Civic Centre and saw three youths walking across the grass. One of them was just finishing his McDonald’s drink, and after the last mouthful he tossed the cup into the air and let it drop on the ground behind him before walking off. I wish I’d been close enough to have told him he’d dropped something – I don’t know what response I’d have got, but it might have made him think.

And this week I was on the train, and found a used plaster left on one of the seats! By what moral compass is this acceptable behaviour?

Wealden’s news release quotes lead environment councillor Sylvia Tidy (there’s a name to match the task) as saying, “It is time we turned up the heat on people who idly toss litter from their cars, sweet papers on to the high street or throw cigarette ends on to the pavement.” And what heat is this? – £75 spot fines.

That might catch some people, but it won’t ultimately solve the problem. And it’s a stick, not a carrot. A much better approach would be my deposit idea. Anyone who dropped litter then would find some enterprising youngster picking it up to claim the deposit.

So much for incentives, but we must also try to tackle the ‘acceptability’ of dropping litter in many people’s minds. Two decades ago, a series of public information films turned drink-driving from a harmless peccadillo into an activity recognised as being a killer. The same could happen now with litter.

Of course that would have to be a government initiative. At local level we need to get into schools, not to tell children not to drop litter – they know that – but to explain what damage is done when you do. Show them films of a duck in agony after getting a piece of discarded plastic stuck round its beak.

We have to pick up litter, if only because a street with lots of litter will spawn even more litter. But if we’re serious about tackling the problem, we have to be more creative than just a couple of £75 spot fines.

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