Controversy of the Week: The Good Thing about Litter

Controversial title, I know, but hear me out.

No one is denying that litter is awful. Throwing waste on the floor is lazy and disrespectful (and completely unnecessary); it’s an eyesore, making streets and green spaces look like dumps; it’s harmful to natural spaces and to wildlife. To be honest, I hate it, as I’m sure most other people do.

On my walk home the other day, as I was mentally complaining about the amount of trash across my path, something occurred to me which inspired this article. True, I hated seeing the food wrappers over the floor, but seeing them reminded me that the rubbish I produce doesn’t just disappear. It remains in the world, harming wildlife and cluttering up our earth, whether it’s put in a waste bin or not. I think we all have a habit of thinking that as long as we put our waste in the right bin we’ve done our bit, no problems caused. This isn’t the case. Rubbish that goes through all the proper systems will still remain on this earth for years to come, just in a pile out of sight so we don’t have to worry about it. As Rachelle Strauss from zero waste week said, we never actually throw anything ‘away’, rubbish always ends up somewhere it shouldn’t be.

The good thing about litter is that it acts as a reminder of the waste we produce; the things we’d rather not face and try so hard to ignore. Each day, 7 million coffee cups are thrown away in the UK. Each year we throw away 15 million plastic bottles, which will take 500 years to decompose. The ones that end up on our streets are a tiny fraction of what we are really putting into the world. Tackling litter does not equate to tackling the issue of waste, it just moves it out of sight, to the back of our mind, and we remain inactive. While we keep producing waste at the same rate, because we’re never forced to confront it, the sites we use to dump our litter are struggling to cope. Soon our waste will be spilling out across the world, and a crisp packet on the road will be the least of our worries.

Picking up litter is a good start, and it shows that many of us do care about what traces we’re leaving behind on this earth. But it doesn’t fix the problem. What we really need to be doing is taking a hard look at how much waste each of us are producing and work hard to reduce this. There are endless ways we can do this, see Zoe Allen’s article series Three Changes a Week for ideas. If we want to tackle litter, we need to tackle waste itself - for example, stop buying the single use coffee cups and drink bottles. Avoid unnecessary packaging. If you don’t like seeing rubbish on earth, stop putting it out there, because wherever ‘there’ is, it will still be out there for a long, long time.