The hedgerows and streets are dotted with artificial colour - white, yellow, red, blue, gold, silver shapes dance in the sunlit wind or cling shivering to the still naked twigs.

Unlike flowers, plastic bags, wrappers and packaging flash out their message all year round, although they are more visible while the leaves are hidden and the grass is low. Unlike flowers, litter does not speak to us of new life, but of waste, carelessness, and bad politics.

Litter is not the most important environmental and social problem that we face, but that does not mean that we should ignore it. It is a problem with costs, and more importantly it is a curable problem. The impact of litter is primarily aesthetic. It makes our environment ugly. When we are depressed, we see the ugly side of the world. Conversely, if we live in an ugly world we get depressed. Litter is not the only cause of depression, but it is one factor. If over the course of a year or two, out country were to turn into a litter free zone, we would all feel happier at a subconscious level. This in itself is a good enough reason to clean up our country. But there is more.

Plastic can entangle and kill wildlife - mainly through the notorious plastic snares that come off six packs of aluminium drink cans. Every one of these that is picked up represents the difference between death and life for a wildfowl. They should, of course be banned, but that would be a bridge too far for a government that lives in the pocket of industry.

For those who are unimpressed by any considerations except money, litter clearing will also generate wealth. When we get gales, litter takes to the air and flies on until stopped. Some items will stop on fences and electricity and telephone wires. They increase the wind resistance of these structures and in some cases this will tip the balance in favour of the wires and fences being blown down.

So litter costs money, wildlife and human happiness. How can the problem be resolved? Litter picking is a labour intensive exercise. Labour costs must be met. There is no direct profit to be made from it, so the private sector would not be interested. To get local authorities to employ the litter pickers would require an increase in general or local taxation, causing mass hysteria, so that is also a non starter. Therefore subtlety is needed.

Someone is responsible for litter. The immediate cause is the ignorant individual who dropped it. We know from experience that both education and punishment is ineffective in changing the behaviour. Mrs Thatcher slapped a £1000 fine onto littering in the 1980's. Convictions for the offence, already low, actually fell even further - after all, what is the point in taking a person to court for what is a minor offence on an individual basis, when there is every likelihood that he will be unable to pay the fine?

So we have to look beyond the immediate cause, to the ultimate cause. If there were no wrappers, cans, bottles and newspapers, there would be no litter. We know the names of the people who make the litter: they are in the Yellow Pages. We can and do put a tax on their products - VAT. If we increased that tax by a small percentage, it would generate two things - a hefty amount of money to pay for the clearing up operation, and a huge outcry from the companies suffering the new taxation. A courageous and intelligent Government could use the outcry to set out its case for the rightness and justice of the taxation - amounting to a free education campaign on the disadvantages of litter.

The taxes raised would be earmarked to the clearing up operation.
It is possible to make the money go further, by applying it to another problem. Our prisons are universities of crime, stuffed to the gunwales with people most of whom pose no threat to society. There are 68,000 prisoners in the UK, costing the taxpayer £26,000 per annum apiece. There is a practicable and cheap alternative to prison called Community Service, where prisoners do a certain number of hours of useful work to pay off their debt to society. Community Service costs a mere £2,000 per offender per annum. Litter picking could become a part of Community Service. The cost of the Community Service would be paid for by the tax on the producers; but the savings to the prison service through imprisonment costs saved would mean a better, more humane and effective prison service.

So the claim is that it is possible to clean up the environment, make the population happier through improvements in visual amenity, protect wildlife, reduce the cost of storm damage, educate the public on these matters, and improve the criminal justice system all at the cost of a trivial increase in the cost of goods that end up in the gutters and hedgerows.

The only problem is - it will not happen. The litter producing companies will object and threaten to withdraw funding from the political party that dares to suggest it, and the Civil Service will resist because it is not their idea. These are the political realities. It is possible to dream of more pleasant alternative realities, but in the meantime, we must accept that litter is part of our cultural heritage.


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© 2001 R. Lawson & BatchTarget Ltd This page was last updated on November 25, 2004