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OP-ED: Filthy Britain

  • Published at 05:54 am May 21st, 2021
rubbish UK

Why do people find it so hard to keep their country clean?

ast Tuesday was a nice day here in South London. That was until I opened my bedroom curtains to discover that some thoughtless idiot has dumped a black sack full of rubbish in the middle of the road opposite my house.  

Nothing but nothing annoys me more than the illegal disposal of garbage, or “fly tipping” as it is known here. Within an hour or so, our local council’s cleaning services had removed it. But that is not the point. It shouldn’t be left to the authorities to clean up the mess of someone who is clearly too lazy or too lacking in morals to do it themselves.  

Between 2018 and 2019, the last year that we have up to date statistics for, the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recorded 1,072,431 incidents of fly tipping in the UK. The cost of disposing of this mountain of rubbish is estimated to be over 58 million pounds per year. 

Both of these staggering statistics are likely to be overtaken during this past year of lockdown with many council recycling and refuse sites closed owing to Covid restrictions. 

It is difficult now to drive down a country lane without encountering disused mattresses, broken furniture, and even cookers. In Cornwall in October 2020, fly tippers dumped several tons of rubble on a rural road overnight. Police had to close the road for several hours while council contractors cleared it.

The problem is not just confined to the countryside. Walk round any British town or city and you will see the same. Only recently in an underground supermarket carpark, I watched two very well-dressed middle-aged ladies clear out the contents of their car, including numerous MacDonald’s drinks containers, assorted crisp packets, and a handful of used facemasks, and leave them in the trolley park.  

I photographed the car’s registration plate and the offending pile of rubbish and emailed to the store’s manager. Whether they will do anything about it is questionable; we Brits just seem to accept this sort of thing now as a part of everyday life.

It is not just the environmental damage and the spoiling of the countryside that angers me, it is the selfish belief of these individuals that it is their right to dispose of their rubbish in this way and the job of someone else to clear it up. 

Where did all of this begin? Back in the 1960s, the country had a massive campaign to “Keep Britain Tidy.” It was a war on litter and tried to encourage people to put their rubbish in a bin or to take it home with them. It clearly failed. The litter problem today is as bad, if not worse now, than it was back then.  

During the 70s, many local and municipal authorities removed litter bins from town and city centres since they were occasionally being used as “dropping off points” for the IRA’s explosive devices during their bombing campaign of the British mainland.  Many have not been replaced and as a result, our streets are full of litter.    

After a while, sadly one tends not to notice. It was only when returning from a recent visit to Tokyo -- which is immaculately litter-free -- that I realized just how bad it is here.  

Thinking that it is alright to just discard your used burger wrapper in the street is, I am sure, the same mentality that thinks it is acceptable to leave your broken fridge by the side of a motorway.

Many of the offenders, sadly, seem to be younger people. This is curious, given that those us of more mature in years are constantly being scolded by our children and young people to be more environmentally aware in order to “save the planet.”  

Moreover, a recent survey has pointed out that Millennials are much less likely to recycle their rubbish than their parents. I was in central London on the final day of the Extinction Rebellion climate protests of April 2019, where several hundred young demonstrators were camped by Marble Arch. The rubbish they left behind had to be seen to be believed.

So how are we to tackle these unpleasant and highly anti-social twin evils of littering and fly tipping? Clearly, there needs to be a lead from the government to educate the public and, in particular their children, to be more responsible with what they do with their rubbish.  

Attitudes to this problem need to change. With the right leadership, it is possible to bring about such a change. Many years ago, the then government introduced a law making the wearing of seatbelts in cars compulsory. Initially, there was much resistance. But gradually over time, the public saw the wisdom of this edict and now it is rare to see anyone driving without one.  

Secondly, there needs to be greater enforcement to catch the fly tippers. Some councils have already installed CCTV cameras in known fly tipping hotspots. Some have even gone as far as to extract DNA from discarded items to track down the offenders from their DNA database.

Finally, the deterrents need to be drastically increased. The average fly tipper only receives a fine of only 400 pounds for a first offense. This is woefully inadequate. 

Unless this country stops turning a blind eye to the selfish actions of some of its citizens and makes littering and fly tipping as unacceptable as drunk driving or driving without a seat belt, then I fear we are going to drown in an ocean of other people’s rubbish. 

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.  

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