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Long Read: The Problem With Litter (Part One)

TFT 'Long Reads' are blog posts where we deep dive into a specific aspect of our work, ethos, and approach to tackling terrestrial pollution. They're a little longer, but filled to the brim with the good stuff!

Words by Tom Hill

In a previous blog post, we talked about the philosophy of Trash Free Trails. It was a quick blast through not just our mission and what we do, but – just as importantly – how we go about it. We talked about everything from measuring our success to our values.

Language is a powerful tool and an intrinsic part of our values. As soon as we learn to speak, we also learn there is a right and a wrong way to communicate. We learn that if we say ‘please’ we are more likely to get a positive response. As we grow older we learn that some words are taboo, some elicit stronger reactions than others and some just slip into our lexicon without another thought.

That is why for the rest of this post, we are focusing on a single word. One that you probably already associate with Trash Free Trails: litter.

If you have spent any time reading through our website, or maybe taken the time to read our State of Our Trails Report, you will see that we very rarely use the term ‘litter’. We prefer the term ‘single-use pollution’ (or SUP). Have you ever wondered why? Why not just use the commonly used, commonly understood word? Everyone knows what litter is, don't they? To mangle a bit of Shakespeare, if a rose by another name is still a rose; well, whatever we call something decidedly less sweet smelling it is still unsightly, polluting and damaging to the places we love. Why bother with YAA (yet another acronym)?

Here’s the thing. We don’t believe that litter is the real problem. ‘Litter’ is simultaneously: the symptom of a societal disconnection with nature; an active shift of corporate burden onto the individual; and (deep breath) the beginning of the introduction of alien plastic pollution into the ecosystem, causing unknown and unquantified damage.

At the heart of this belief is our investment in understanding the complicated, interconnected process chain of how packaging for our food and drink ends up in wild environments, and the subsequent damage it is heaving. What we really, really care about is breaking that chain and protecting our wild places.

There’s a lot to unpack still, isn’t there. Maybe we should start at the beginning.

What is litter and where does it come from?

What do you think of when you hear the word litter? This isn’t a trick question, but the answer is perhaps a little more nuanced than you first realised. First of all, when is litter, litter? Is it when it is thrown in a litter bin? Do we mean plant litter; unwanted autumn leaves clogging up drains? Why are people less bothered about an apple core tossed in a hedge than a drink bottle dropped there? Do we mean the noun – the actual items – or the verb, the act of littering?

It’s already getting a little confusing, and I don’t know about you, but even hearing ‘litter’ starts to raise my hackles. It is an incredibly emotive word, but it is also an emotive issue. Before we go any further, maybe we should examine the modern history of litter, because the backstory helps explain why we think it's time to rethink our terminology.

It’s the US in the late 1940s. We are used to the austerity of WW2; we spend carefully, throw absolutely nothing away and reuse wherever possible. Pushing for post-war growth, companies and governments convince us to consume more. And hand-in-hand with that more packaging starts to become single-use. Plastic and aluminium begin to replace glass and ceramic ware. We begin to become more comfortable with the idea that packaging is disposable. The problem is that some people don’t really care where they drop this stuff.

There is growing societal pressure that something should be done about the new problem of ‘litter’. US States begin to legislate against throwaway containers, placing the onus for solving the problem on the corporations like Coca Cola that are responsible for producing the disposables.

By 1953, Keep America Beautiful is founded by American Can Co. and is quickly joined by Coca Cola and other packaging companies. Its campaigns steadily shift the responsibility for litter away from the producers and on to individual consumers. It is unpatriotic litterbugs that are poisoning America, not the enormous mega-corps that are churning out an unsustainable quantity of single-use containers year on year.

Little has changed in the intervening three quarters of a century, except for a booming growth in the proliferation and normalisation of single-use packaging; a throw-away, disposable, value-less item who’s useful life ends the second a product is opened.

A quick thought experiment

Before we go on, I want you to imagine a parallel universe. Imagine a world where dropped wrappers evaporate instantly; break down into air and water before they’ve hit the ground. ‘Litter’ would cease to be a problem in a second. But that’s completely fantastical, I hear you say. Scientifically impossible. True. Let’s be a little more realistic. Imagine a world where all packaging decomposed naturally within a year of its use. Or packaging is designed to be used over and over again. We already live in this world. There are small companies out there living this version of reality; whether it is the likes of Outdoor Provisions making snacks that are wrapped in compostable materials, or your local bulk refill shop.

But why isn’t Coke, Red Bull, Lucozade, Walkers, Cadbury’s etc doing the same? Because they don’t want to. It’s expensive. They think that we don’t care enough to pay more and they don’t want to damage their profits. They don’t want to because the others aren’t. Because they don’t have to.

It’s easier to maintain the narrative that ‘litter’ is an end user problem. Whack a little “please recycle me” message on the packet and job done. It isn’t good enough. Not even close. The reason ‘litter’ is such a problem to those big companies isn’t the environmental damage that it causes. It's bad PR. It is the visible part of their unsustainable model, that the planet will end up paying for. Throwing some loose change at ‘don’t litter’ campaigns; targeting our ire at the bogeyman of the litterbug, rather than the looming real issue feels like a textbook definition of what we know as greenwashing.


What can be done? It’s a depressing picture, but there is hope out there. First of all, smaller, innovative companies are showing that there is another way. Secondly, governments can and have made positive interventions to change corporate behaviour. Scotland is leading the way at the moment. The introduction of their deposit return scheme this August adds a refundable 20p to the price of each single-use drinks container.

This kind of change takes time though. And it isn’t the only answer. There is still, and always will be, a place for community-led, community-championed acts of care to protect our wild spaces. It is a fundamental part of what we do.

It’s time to take stock. We’ve dwelt on the problem with the term ‘litter’ and the baggage it brings with it. It’s only half of the story though; history. It’s how we’ve got to where we are. It’s not the future; we can’t let it be. In our next blog post, we’ll talk about how we are shaking up the model of community intervention, through positive and deliberate re-connection, furthering our scientific understanding of the impact of single-use pollution, and how we are working with some of the biggest producers of single-use packaging to push for change – at an individual and corporate level.

If your interest has been piqued already, you might like to read a little more background on the history of Keep America Beautiful and its campaigning. Here and here.


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