Environment

Is this your sock?

Litter from Wimbledon Common

Is this your sock?

This is a picture of what I gathered in a spare few minutes before leading a school session in the woods on Wimbledon Common this week. It includes:

37 different fragments of plastic wrapper
3 used wet wipes
2 plastic straws
a child’s plastic  necklace
2 crisp packets
5 straw sheaths
2 pieces of glass
1 plastic bottle
a sock

If you don’t think that litter is much of a problem, the Broken Window theory might convince you otherwise.

The broken window theory is the concept that each problem that goes unattended in a given environment affects people’s attitude toward that environment and leads to more problems.

The theory first appeared in a 1982 article (“Broken Windows”) in The Atlantic by two social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Here’s how the authors explain the phenomenon:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

In the context of our open spaces, we are only belatedly realising how vital they are to our health and wellbeing – both as individuals and collectively. A recent survey of land managers revealed that 8/10 of them felt that dealing with minor crimes such as littering and graffiti would improve public safety, while a new report by Keep Britain Tidy reveals that litter could be killing up to 3.2m shrews, voles and mice every year.

The KBT study looked at litter along roadsides and in lay-bys and found that more than 8% of bottles and almost 5% of the cans collected contained the remains of some of our smallest and most rare native mammals, common shrews, pygmy shrews, bank voles and wood mice. These animals are an essential part of our wildlife heritage and form a vital part of the food chain, eating insects and plants and acting as prey for other animals and rare birds like owls and kestrels.

So, are you guilty ? Apparently 62% of people drop litter but only 28% of us admit to it. If you have guilty memories of that crisp packet, or if you recognise that sock I foundthen consider these facts:

  • 30m tonnes of litter is collected from UK streets every year.  That is enough to fill Wembley Stadium to the top 4 times!
  • Local authorities spend £1bn a year clearing up our litter. That would fund 301,476 primary school places, 33,200 nurses or pay the fuel bills for 704,200 households – taking them out of fuel poverty. Alternatively (if cycling is more your bag) it would create 2,000km of cycle lanes.

What can you do?
That’s the big question isn’t it? With figures as large as that it’s easy to become discouraged, but there are things we can all do:

1. Take your rubbish home
On a visit to the countryside, always take your rubbish home with you. It may sound obvious, but it is surprising how many people don’t.

2. Reduce your packaging
Ensure your picnics use the least amount of packaging. Bring sandwiches in reusable containers rather than cling film, use a refillable bottle and avoid products in plastic.

3. Pick up rubbish you find
If you see a discarded crisp packet, can, bottle or any litter when out and about, pick it up. Keep a bag and protective gloves in your rucksack for litter-picking emergencies

4. Spread the word
Tell others what you do and encourage them to respect the countryside. Post on your social media feeds about litter-picks you’ve done, and share recycling information. Especially (as we are all parents here) talk to your children about respecting the environment.

5. Organise your own litter pick
Organise your own litter pick in your local area and ask your neighbours and friends to get involved, too. It’s a great activity that can help to build community pride, and sets a good example for children.

Naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham commented, “We have all seen the impact of littered plastic bottles on our marine environment in recent months. It is time for everyone to take responsibility for their rubbish. If you care about our country and its wildlife don’t be a ‘tosser’.”

Jonathan Millington

Author Jonathan Millington

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