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Long Read: The Problem With Litter (Part 2)

Words by Tom Hill

Now, where were we? In our last blog post, we talked about some of the difficulties there are with the word “litter”. We looked at the shift of blame from corporations producing huge quantities of single-use packaging to the end consumer; a small percentage of whom dispose of said packaging irresponsibly.

We talked about high-level, government and corporate-led change; marked by a step away from the disposable nature of our consumption. What we ran out of time to fully explore was what’s Trash Free Trails’ role? How do we help drive that change? And what about those few that do drop litter? How can we counter their acts of neglect and environmental harm? And the all important question, how can we change their behaviour?

Gathering evidence

There are perhaps two key reasons that a government will make a policy change: it thinks it will be popular and win them votes, or there is evidence to suggest that the change will have a net positive impact on the country (how you define ‘positive’ here is up for debate, and be influenced by your political and social beliefs, but you get the idea).

So how do we apply pressure to effect policy change? It is clear that the current government (and those that have gone before them) do not see reducing the impact of single-use packaging – neither at production nor end-of-life – as a vote-winning priority at the moment. Well, surely the overwhelming evidence of the damaging effects of single-use pollution (SUP) on our wild places will do the job?

Well, there’s the rub. Until very, very recently, there was effectively zero scientific evidence that the crisp wrappers, discarded gels, empty cans and dog poo bags were anything other than unsightly. Trash Free Trails – and our heroic TrashMob – are leading the charge in using citizen science to record the damaging impact to the environment of SUP. Through the State of Our Trails Report we are building the kind of body of evidence that can be used to lobby and campaign.

For the first time ever, we have quantifiable data. It would be naive to think that all we have to do is wave a few scientific studies under the noses of an MP or two, but it is a vital and necessary part of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that is government and legislature.


For the second part of this story, let's change tack. Science, government and policy feel quite ‘big’, and distant from the here and now. That isn’t always the case (citizen science is a great example of this), but sometimes we all need to feel like we are making a difference, now.

That is of course how Trash Free Trails started; a small group of people wanting to make an immediate positive impact on the places they cared about. We will keep conducting trail cleans for as long as they are needed. But they are not the only answer. They tackle the symptoms of single-use pollution, not the cause. What is the cause? Well, we believe it is a fundamental disconnection between people and the environment they live with and are part of.

More on that in a second. We talked about Keep America Beautiful in our last blog post. The UK’s equivalent is Keep Britain Tidy. We have all seen their signs, and similar ones on our streets and at car parks and at beauty spots. There are a thousand different varieties, but their message is essentially the same; “DO NOT LITTER”. Their effectiveness is marginal at best. This is absolutely not a criticism of those organisations, but we feel that message is missing the point somewhat.

Have you ever seen a sign while out and about and gone back and picked up that bottle you just chucked in the undergrowth? No. 99% of us wouldn’t have dropped anything in the first place. The other 1% will not have their behaviours changed by a sign. Why not?

Do we need No Littering signs in our homes?

Let me retell a story from Rich Breedon, our Programmes Manager. He was at a TrashMOB Academy session last year. He stood next to one of the girls due to be taking part, but she didn’t want to, pushed back, rebelled. He asked her whether she thought it was okay to drop litter in the woods that they were in. She shrugged. The street? Shrug. In her bedroom. “No, never”. Why was her bedroom different? Because she cared about that space. It was hers. Her sanctuary from the rest of the world. Her place to escape anything else that was going on. Her place to relax. Rich explained that those woods were the equivalent of his bedroom. He loved them and cared for them as much as she did her own space.

And that is why disconnection is the root issue that we are trying to tackle. So many people in our society have a dysfunctional relationship with the outdoors. Depending on their circumstances, ‘the outdoors’ is a place that other people with more money, time and privilege visit, or an uncared for green space, or a space to be commodified. I’ve talked about our relationships before here. Maybe all of us could become more connected to the places that have the potential to provide us so much pleasure.


If disconnection is not solved by a sign, how is it solved? Well, you won’t be surprised to hear the answer isn’t quite so simple. We are still working things out for ourselves, but that is why we hold the TrashMob Academy, Purposeful Adventures and our Citizen Science projects so close to our hearts.

We will continue to work towards a positive future, because, you know what? Nature connection is about so much more than single-use pollution. It is about our own health –mental and physical – and the health of the ecosystems that we love so dearly.


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