Keep Britain Tidy was first set up in 1955 following a resolution passed the previous year at the British Women’s Institute AGM to start a national anti-litter campaign. In 1987 it changed its name to the Tidy Britain Group, and again in 2002 to ENCAMS (short for Environmental Campaigners) before reverting to Keep Britain Tidy seven years later.
It is perhaps a sign of the total disregard that clearly far too many people have for the environment that 63 years after we were introduced to the concept and the slogan of keeping Britain tidy, it currently costs more than £700m every year to clean (just) England’s streets of the litter we continue to discard like confetti.
From time to time, the media highlight the highly commendable public spiritedness of individuals and groups of concerned citizens who make it their mission to regularly pick up after the rest of us. And those are the kind of volunteers Keep Britain Tidy is hoping will join its March campaign. But, stating the rather obvious, none of that would be necessary if people weren’t leaving their litter everywhere in the first place.
The equally obvious question is to ask why do people do that? Why have they never learned, or been taught, to put their rubbish in litter bins, or to take it home with them if there isn’t one to-hand, or to at least carry it with them until they come to one? None of that seems to happen.
Clearly the fines for littering are no deterrent at all and that’s because no one is enforcing them and there’s little or no risk of being caught anyway. We are all familiar with the outcry in the media whenever local authorities try to fine people caught discarding, for example, cigarette ends and chewing gum – which is littering even though one seems to think it is.
Just look at the volume of cigarette ends outside buildings where smoking is no longer permitted, and the paving stones resurfaced with little patches of gum outside every newsagent and corner shop. It’s hard to believe so many people are chewing gum in the first place, let alone that they have chosen to spit it out at those particular locations.
A day’s outing in the car will provide a lesson in just how much trash “decorates” our hedgerow and roadsides. This is stuff that self-centred people have thrown from their vehicles – which in itself is breaking the law – with no regard whatsoever for the fact that it spoils the beauty of the countryside for everyone else. It’s like the people I used to see when I was parish priest in Whitby sitting eating their fish and chips and then throwing the wrappings on the floor, or leaving them on the bench where they were sitting, when there were litter bins just feet away. These were visitors to a town that was clean and tidy when they arrived, but they had no qualms about leaving it trashed and filthy for others when they went home.
How many years is it now since schools began teaching pupils about care and concern for the environment? Sadly it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect. Outside any school you will see mothers handing their kids sweets and chocolate bars to tide them over until they get home and the kids stripping off the wrappers and casting them to the wind. Somehow they have missed the point that while they may be concerned for vanishing icebergs and species heading for extinction, the tonnage of litter that they generate in that way every day is doing harm to our own environment and, by extension, to the wider world.
And it’s the same with all the discarded plastic bags, coffee cups, fast food containers, pizza boxes, crisp packets, beer bottles, food wrappings, gum, cigarette ends, and on and on. Where do litterers think their rubbish goes? Who do they think is going to pick up after them? Of course they don’t think – that’s the problem. Who do they think pays the bill for cleaning up after them? The bill is more than £700m a year and that’s just in England. What else could that money be spent on in the community? How many more ambulances, nursing staff, home carers, emergency services, police and teachers?
More power, then, to those selfless individuals and groups who are constantly clearing up after the litterers, the trashers, and the fly-tippers who would happily live in their own squalor. Thankfully there are at least some people who care.
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.