The hedgerows and streets are dotted with artificial colour - white,
yellow, red, blue, gold, silver shapes dance in the sunlit wind
or cling shivering to the still naked twigs.
Unlike flowers, plastic bags, wrappers and packaging flash out
their message all year round, although they are more visible while
the leaves are hidden and the grass is low. Unlike flowers, litter
does not speak to us of new life, but of waste, carelessness, and
Litter is not the most important environmental and social problem
that we face, but that does not mean that we should ignore it. It
is a problem with costs, and more importantly it is a curable problem.
The impact of litter is primarily aesthetic. It makes our environment
ugly. When we are depressed, we see the ugly side of the world.
Conversely, if we live in an ugly world we get depressed. Litter
is not the only cause of depression, but it is one factor. If over
the course of a year or two, out country were to turn into a litter
free zone, we would all feel happier at a subconscious level. This
in itself is a good enough reason to clean up our country. But there
Plastic can entangle and kill wildlife - mainly through the notorious
plastic snares that come off six packs of aluminium drink cans.
Every one of these that is picked up represents the difference between
death and life for a wildfowl. They should, of course be banned,
but that would be a bridge too far for a government that lives in
the pocket of industry.
For those who are unimpressed by any considerations except money,
litter clearing will also generate wealth. When we get gales, litter
takes to the air and flies on until stopped. Some items will stop
on fences and electricity and telephone wires. They increase the
wind resistance of these structures and in some cases this will
tip the balance in favour of the wires and fences being blown down.
So litter costs money, wildlife and human happiness. How can the
problem be resolved? Litter picking is a labour intensive exercise.
Labour costs must be met. There is no direct profit to be made from
it, so the private sector would not be interested. To get local
authorities to employ the litter pickers would require an increase
in general or local taxation, causing mass hysteria, so that is
also a non starter. Therefore subtlety is needed.
Someone is responsible for litter. The immediate cause is the ignorant
individual who dropped it. We know from experience that both education
and punishment is ineffective in changing the behaviour. Mrs Thatcher
slapped a £1000 fine onto littering in the 1980's. Convictions
for the offence, already low, actually fell even further - after
all, what is the point in taking a person to court for what is a
minor offence on an individual basis, when there is every likelihood
that he will be unable to pay the fine?
So we have to look beyond the immediate cause, to the ultimate
cause. If there were no wrappers, cans, bottles and newspapers,
there would be no litter. We know the names of the people who make
the litter: they are in the Yellow Pages. We can and do put a tax
on their products - VAT. If we increased that tax by a small percentage,
it would generate two things - a hefty amount of money to pay for
the clearing up operation, and a huge outcry from the companies
suffering the new taxation. A courageous and intelligent Government
could use the outcry to set out its case for the rightness and justice
of the taxation - amounting to a free education campaign on the
disadvantages of litter.
The taxes raised would be earmarked to the clearing up operation.
It is possible to make the money go further, by applying it to another
problem. Our prisons are universities of crime, stuffed to the gunwales
with people most of whom pose no threat to society. There are 68,000
prisoners in the UK, costing the taxpayer £26,000 per annum
apiece. There is a practicable and cheap alternative to prison called
Community Service, where prisoners do a certain number of hours
of useful work to pay off their debt to society. Community Service
costs a mere £2,000 per offender per annum. Litter picking
could become a part of Community Service. The cost of the Community
Service would be paid for by the tax on the producers; but the savings
to the prison service through imprisonment costs saved would mean
a better, more humane and effective prison service.
So the claim is that it is possible to clean up the environment,
make the population happier through improvements in visual amenity,
protect wildlife, reduce the cost of storm damage, educate the public
on these matters, and improve the criminal justice system all at
the cost of a trivial increase in the cost of goods that end up
in the gutters and hedgerows.
The only problem is - it will not happen. The litter producing
companies will object and threaten to withdraw funding from the
political party that dares to suggest it, and the Civil Service
will resist because it is not their idea. These are the political
realities. It is possible to dream of more pleasant alternative
realities, but in the meantime, we must accept that litter is part
of our cultural heritage.