From John in Brighton: What a Load of Rubbish!

Rubbish on a remote Indonesian island

12 June. It was instilled into me at a young age that you don’t leave litter. I don’t recall so many public bins back in the 60’s and the message was clear – pack up your rubbish, take it home and bin it. On the face of it not difficult to understand or to execute so why has litter been a thorn in our side for as long as I can remember?.
Yesterday evening in a local park was an overflowing bin and litter strewn all around – a small vignette of a much bigger problem. One hot weekend last summer 23 tons of rubbish were collected off the Brighton and Hove beaches and the Council planned for a further 300 new bins over a stretch of about eight miles along the sea front. This included recycling so blue for plastic bottles and cans, maroon for glass and black for ordinary rubbish. Again I’d ask, what could be simpler? But there’s a sense of deja vu with the recent burst of hot weather and the beach near the pier had an ugly coating of nappies, wipes, takeaway items, cans and drinks bottles aplenty. Enough in fact for volunteers to fill twenty five bags of 5 Litre volume over about a three mile stretch. 
And it’s not just the beaches but also the parks. Preston Park, Brighton’s largest, might take park attendant Bill at least a couple of hours to clear after a hot day he tells us on the local radio. And last spring 500 bags of rubbish were collected from two of the main roads in Sussex the A27 and A23 – some may have blown in but the majority probably expelled from drivers’ windows. Yet go up on the nearby Downs and litter is practically non-existent as witnessed by a ten mile cycle this week and spotting one item. Perhaps this simply reflects a far lower number of people but I suspect also a different mentality. And maybe if you see no rubbish it induces you to follow suit, positive reinforcement even if there is no tangible reward..
I try to understand why people leave so much rubbish. Is it simply laziness or lack of facilities? Often bins are overflowing but isn’t the appropriate response to find another even if that means taking it home? Is it a perception that it’s somebody else’s responsibility to sort – “that’s what they’re paid for”, except that they aren’t and a lot of the clearing rests with volunteers? A lack of any civic pride – maybe it’s the band of London day-trippers who are solely responsible but I doubt it. Or just a lack of self-discipline, perhaps exacerbated by the restrictions of lockdown and the new-found freedoms nurturing a low-level anomie? But last summer’s findings predate Covid and imply a more chronic problem. Or maybe it’s quite simply the absence of any consequence – identifying culprits is practically impossible. Politicians repeatedly praise the adherence of the general public to the lockdown so the principles of self-discipline are well understood but regardless of rules and directives from on high arguably the biggest incentive there is avoiding a potentially life-threatening disease. No one dies from leaving a bit of litter………but fauna might. The plastic pollution of the oceans and its consequences have been highlighted in the last couple of years. Recently there have been reports of micro-plastics in rivers and affecting the bird life, not all of it from litter but it may contribute. And better still for the miscreant is the difficulty of policing litter louts – last year Brighton introduced a team of “litter cops” and the threat of a £300 fine but how can they effectively patrol a large area 24/7 although the threat might be a subliminal deterrent to some? After a leave of absence the enforcement officers re-emerged last week so I’m hoping for a cleaner city as the summer progresses but won’t hold my breath and I still question why such a measure is needed.
Education and Public Information Films have been tried – going back to the 60’s Roy Hudd did one. Then there was that catchy slogan “Find a Bin To Put It In” so I fear this may be as difficult to unravel as the Gordian knot and will remain an issue in another fifty years time. But it’s not all bad. Back to the 60’s and the footpaths were littered with faeces (usually canine)  but no longer.  An eighty quid fine surely helps to focus the attention but again I suspect the mindset and understanding the rationale is the most important thing. Again it begs the question as to how people generally comply with this but not so well with garbage disposal.

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