Neil McNicholas: Scourge of littering starts with a lack of discipline

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I’VE often heard British visitors to Disneyworld in Florida remark on how clean and litter-free it is. So would places in the UK be, but people discard litter like confetti because they don’t care. And most other people don’t seem to be perturbed – otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

My previous parish was next door to a primary school and the first thing parents would do on collecting their kids was give them crisps or sweets, and the first thing the kids would do was drop the empty crisp bags and sweets wrappers on the ground as they walked along.

Of course, the parents didn’t stop them or tell them to pick them up again and so they would blow under the bushes in my garden where, eventually, enough litter accumulated to fill a bin bag which on one occasion I duly presented to the head teacher but to no avail.

Singapore has a reputation for being immaculately litter-free and that’s because even a discarded cigarette incurs a fine of $300. Dropping any litter bigger than that results in a $1,000 fine or 12 hours of community service and having to wear a bright orange sweater declaring the wearier to be a litterer. The fine goes up to $5,000 for a repeat offence. The problem created by discarded chewing gum had presumably become so bad that the sale of gum was made illegal.

That’s the way to do it – that and strict policing.

Back in this country we continue to trash our town centres, our neighbourhoods and our countryside.

As a society, we seem not to mind everywhere being “decorated” with strewn litter, nor picking our way around dog excrement and pools of vomit (I apologise for being so graphic but that’s the reality).

Why does someone devouring a late-night takeaway, having passed numerous litter bins, then decide to drop the container wherever they happen to be at the time? Who do they think is going to pick it up – the tooth fairy?

Of course they are probably so boozed-up that they don’t care, but a Singapore-like £1,000 fine would make it a very expensive takeaway and might just make them think next time.

I think I related once before in these pages the story of my friend who was so fed up with discarded pizza boxes that he went to the see the owner of the pizzeria and, tongue-in-cheek, asked if he could make his pizzas about two inches larger so that by the time people came to the last bite they would have passed his house and the boxes would end up in someone else’s garden!

We hear of the very commendable actions of dedicated individuals and groups of residents who commit themselves to picking up behind the litterers, but isn’t it sad that, as a society, we make that necessary? What is the mentality of someone who disposes of their rubbish by throwing it out of their car window? Throwing anything from a moving vehicle is against the law anyway and so is littering. What makes them think it doesn’t matter if they trash the environment for everyone else?

When I was living in Whitby, I would see visitors eating fish and chips and then leave their wrappers and drinks bottles where they had been sitting – and in some cases quite close to a litter bin which remained unused (by them at least).

If they had arrived in the town to find it looking like a tip, they would have been the first to complain, but they don’t mind leaving it like a tip for others. I have a “tip” for them – stay at home.

What is the mentality of someone with a pick-up truck full of building rubble, broken domestic appliances, old tyres, possibly even carcinogenic asbestos waste, fully intending to dump it somewhere where it becomes someone else’s problem – even a risk to people’s health?

They know it’s against the law but they don’t care. They know it turns the countryside into a garbage dump but they don’t care. They know it’s unbelievably anti-social but they don’t care.

They also know someone else will 
have to come along and clear up the mess they have created but they don’t care.

If it costs to use the local tip, then 
why not simply charge the person 
whose rubbish it was and dispose of it properly, legally, safely and with due regard for the countryside and the environment?

It’s the unpunished dropping of crisp bags and sweet wrappers as a child, that becomes the discarding of cigarette ends and chewing gum, that becomes the scattering of takeaway boxes, that becomes the lawless fly-tipping that blights our countryside.

Effective lessons need to be taught to those who don’t care, on behalf of those of us who do.

Father Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.