Why don’t we just pick up litter?

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Susan Devaney
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In recent weeks, as Londoners have basked in sporadic sunshine, images of parks spilling over with litter have circulated across social media channels. This has prompted Stylist’s digital writer Susan Devaney to ask: why don’t we just pick up litter? 

I remember it so clearly the first time, as a child, I saw an adult throw litter away without a second thought or fleeting moment of guilt.

I had been left in the care of a family friend, who’d been tasked with ensuring my safe return from a swimming lesson.

As we cruised through the meandering country roads with my siblings in tow, blaring Red Red Wine by UB40 and sucking on sweet Fruit Pastilles, the family friend opened the car’s sunroof and let go of an empty packet of Monster Munch.

I watched as it was whisked away into the wind and left behind with tall trees and unsuspecting wildlife.

It was the first of many times I had to stay silent in the backseat and witness such a blatant disregard for nature.

Now as an adult, my silence no longer holds me still.

As I lay in London Fields on the first weekend of May, the second dose of blazing sunshine of the year, that same feeling I felt as a child rose within me. I saw people leave a trail of mess – from burnt blades of grass from BBQs to plastic cups with beer dregs and wasted, unwanted fruit – behind them as they made their way home after a day of drinking, eating and soaking up the sun.

But I’m not the only one who won’t let it lie.

Since that weekend people have taken to social media to shame those in society who don’t (and won’t) pick up their litter.

“Summer’s here then,” one user wrote, alongside a photo of rubbish left beside a bin in Battersea Park. 

And the litter extended to beaches – not just parks. As one Twitter user exposed, by posting a series of images of a beach laden with litter after the weekend.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love that Southend get visitors and they enjoy coming down. But it doesn’t take 30 seconds to tidy up after yourself. The litter left on the beach last night was shocking. Come on people use what little brains you have, pick it up and put it in a bin!”

Another user called out the council for not doing enough, posting: “Say, Lambeth Council, it would be good to have some bin emptying patrols in Brockwell Park on days like this. Every bin we saw was completely full or overflowing.”

To which Lambeth Council rightly replied: “Hi, our parks are popular over hot days. Around 20 staff litter picking and emptying bins in our busier parks and open spaces during the summer. To help them keep Lambeth’s parks tidy, we also encourage park users to take their litter home with them, particularly if bins are full.”

Here’s the thing, it is not anybody’s job but your own to pick up your own mess. We’re taught this as children, and it still holds true as adults.

In England alone, 11,900 litter incidents were reported on apps from 2016 to 2017. Furthermore, the Great British Beach Clean found there to be 744 items per 100 metres of beach. And, the cost of keeping our streets clean per household equates to £29. On a global scale, it’s been estimated 25,000,000 tonnes of litter are dropped annually.

But maybe the world is like a school playground. I’ve started to assume that people are simply asking themselves: if everyone else isn’t bothering to pick up litter, why should I? It’s a child-like mentality. According to the bystander affect theory, not only are we unwilling to be the first to act, but the more people around us not doing something, the more we feel we don’t have to either.

We can see this effect taking hold through our plastic consumption. Not only are we littering parks, but our littering has spread to the world’s oceans, too. For one, the Great Garbage Patch has grown at an unprecedented rate in a matter of months.

And that empty packet of Monster Munch was probably cleared away thanks to an estimated £4.8 million annual bill footed by taxpayers. Hopefully before an animal started to make it a home. According to RSPB and Keep Britain Tidy, 8% of bottles and nearly 5% of all cans found on the roadside contain some of our rarest animals, including wood mice, bank voles and shrews.

So go and enjoy the next bout of glorious sunshine (and long may it last) but instead of doing as others do, go against the grain, pick up your litter, and don’t let it lie.

Images: Getty / Twitter 

This article was originally published on 17 May 2018