Andrew Vine: Shift attitudes to win the fight against litter

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THE signs along the A64 spelt out a depressing story of selfishness, thoughtlessness and a complete lack of concern for the environment.

Each carried a figure for the number of bags of litter collected from a layby, hundreds at each spot as the miles ticked by en route for the coast on a sunny day, and as if to mock the efforts to clear it up, below every sign more rubbish had accumulated.

It had been chucked from car windows, or dumped by fly-tippers, disfiguring verges and grassy slopes, or blown into the branches of trees beyond the reach of the hard-working men and women trying to keep on top of the problem.

It is not, of course, just the A64 where litter is an unsightly problem. The verges of every trunk road tell the same story, as do the routes into our towns and cities.

Nor are the depths of the countryside spared. After that journey along the A64 came the dismal sight of verges in quiet lanes leading to the majestic cliffs of Bempton and Flamborough that had also been despoiled by fly-tippers.

If the desecration of Yorkshire’s countryside in this way makes my heart sink, it also makes my blood boil.

That’s because the cost of dealing with this is coming out of your pocket and mine. At a time when local authority budgets are under unprecedented pressure, a proportion of our council taxes has to be diverted to clear up after the litterers.

As this newspaper’s campaign to tackle the avalanche of litter sweeping across Yorkshire has shown, the cost of the problem is at its highest for six years. Clearing flytipping alone costs an average of £72 a minute. Multiply that across every layby in Yorkshire where black bin liners bursting open and scattering their contents to the wind have to be cleared away, and the cost is staggering.

What a difference for good it would make if councils were able to spend that money instead on helping the elderly or vulnerable.

It is a bill we can ill afford, but one that must be met. Besides blighting and disfiguring our county in both urban and rural areas, litter poses a threat to our health, our sense of wellbeing, and to wildlife.

It’s no coincidence that the rat population has boomed in tandem with the increase in littering, because so much of it is food-related, whether packaging from takeaway meals or the leftover scraps of burgers or sandwiches.

If there is any comfort to be found in the problem of littering, it is that it unites decent people into doing something about it.

It is one of the most annoying of everyday problems. Don’t all of us know that pang of irritation and resentment at coming out of our home in a morning to find that some rubbish has been thrown into our garden by a loutish passer-by who has finished with his kebab or can of pop?

Neighbours, friends and community groups who gather to clear away rubbish do sterling work and deserve our thanks for joining the unceasing battle against litter.

And in the long term, people power may prove to be one of the most potent weapons we have in this battle.

We need to foster a step-change in public attitudes to littering, with the aim of making it as socially unacceptable as other aspects of behaviour have become.

This approach has worked before – only a couple of generations ago, drink-driving was much more prevalent than it is now, and more recently smoking was being relentlessly pushed to the margins even before legislation was introduced banning it in enclosed public places.

Hammering home the message that littering is just plain wrong, in the same way that the messages about drink-driving and smoking were forced into the public mind, offers hope that we might eventually bring it under control.

We have valuable allies in this, in the shape of the young. The generations now going through school are more aware of the need to safeguard the environment than any that preceded them, and an awareness of the damage that litter does is a message they would take to heart.

Let’s not under-estimate the potency of their pester power to change the behaviour of parents. If mum or dad is about to chuck some rubbish out of the car window onto the A64 on the way back from the seaside, a young voice of conscience from the back seat might go a long way towards stopping it happening.

And the power of people to bolster the efforts of councils to tackle hard core fly-tippers is essential. We should all resolve to report any incidents of illegal tipping if we encounter it. Take a note of registration numbers and pass them on so the offenders can be hauled before the courts and punished.

Beating litter will be a long battle. But it’s one worth fighting and winning, for all our sakes.