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Who are the real litter louts?

Official statistics from the Home Office’s Office of National Statistics show that there is a high level of concern about the problem of litter. Indeed, of all crime and anti-social behaviour litter has the second highest source of concern (33 percent of those surveyed felt “a high level of worry”). Vandalism comes top of the list (34 percent), both much higher than racial harassment (8 percent) and fear of burglary (14 percent). Hardly a week goes by without a letter sent to local papers on the subject. Now common or garden street litter is hardly one of the world’s major problems, but most people are primarily concerned with things that affect them – it is simply a human response to something right before the eyes. People clearly want and indeed should expect a decent local environment. What can be done about this problem? We examine a few solutions . . .

Solution no. 1: More bins. It might be suggested that more rubbish bins would solve the problem. Certainly this could have some effect. However my local area has plenty of bins (empty ones) and plenty of litter. Putting the rubbish in the bins is clearly something different from putting the bins up in the first place.

Solution no. 2: The strong arm of the law. A crackdown on ‘litter louts’– fines or imprisonment – can be a short term solution particularly in areas with a traditional respect of authority. Such a policy has been carried out very successfully, for example in Singapore. However, whether large and disparate societies have the resources to deal with what is basically a minor infraction of the law in such a heavy-handed manner is doubtful.

Solution no. 3: Education. A rather cheaper method than a policeman on every corner would be a concerted campaign in the schools: “Naughty children: don’t throw things on the street.” However education (or what passes for it in these sad times) seems to be part of the problem. It is almost certainly the case that the majority of street litter is thrown by children or adolescents.

Solution no. 4: ‘Alternative’ education. If it really is the case that littering is a product of alienation in the schools it might be advisable to change the system of schooling to one more child-friendly. At the risk of us being deluged with letters from irate ‘alt-ed’ enthusiasts, the idea of ‘nice’ schooling is ridiculous in a world that is most definitely not nice. The modern system of education generally fits the bill required - that of producing (and reproducing) the ideal modern worker. Also again we hit the problem of resources - who will pay for this intensive, alternative approach?

Solution no. 5: A ‘green’ idea. Very popular in Germany, the Green ‘Law of Return’ means that councils are entitled to ship product wrappings back to the factory of origin. A ton of crisp packets dumped on the doorstep is a powerful argument for making biodegradable or recyclable packaging. This comes close to the problem and all credit here for identifying the real litter louts. But recycling uses resources – surely better, as far as is possible, not to produce potential litter in the first place; however, this cannot be expected from those whose business is to produce.

Solution no. 6: Socialism. Litter, like most other problems of the world, is a product of the current phase of capitalism. Consumption to the nth power (including snack foods, the main cause of street litter), within a background of built-in obsolescence determined chiefly by the great corporations, is the order of the day, all driven by the relentless quest for profit.  Compounding the issue within capitalism is the sense of alienation, especially among young people, the result of the class ownership of society and the commodifying of everyday life – all of which helps produce the carelessness of littering. Powerless and voiceless – why should the ‘litter lout’ care? The streets really are not our own, nor can they be under capitalism.