Why do the British litter? What can we learn from Japan and France?

By Richard Pooley



One afternoon late last year I watched a young woman having a smoke on the pavement below my study window in Bath. I live in a residential street. However, there is a firm of architects alongside the courtyard next door. The staff have mostly been working from home during the Covid pandemic but over the previous fortnight I had noticed cigarette butts scattered across the entrance to the courtyard and in the gutter by my car and wondered who the butt-littering smoker was. Now I had my answer. The woman flicked the remains of her cigarette on to the pavement and walked back into her office.


What to do? March into the architects’ office and berate the woman for her befouling behaviour? Ring up the office manager and ask him to do the scolding? I did neither. A couple of days later I picked up every butt I could find between the courtyard entrance and the nearest storm-drain, put them in a large glass jar and left the almost-full jar by the architects’ front door. The butt-littering stopped.


Now, you may take issue with my use of littering to describe this woman’s actions. Perhaps you don’t realise that cigarette stubs are the most commonly found bits of litter in the world’s oceans. 2,117,931 of them were found in just one day in 2013 by volunteers doing the annual worldwide International Coastal Clean-up organised by Ocean Conservancy, twice the number of food wrappers and plastic bottles that they picked up. New Yorkers are estimated to drop 5 million tonnes of cigarette butts every year. Okay, you may say, but what real harm does all this cigarette litter do? A lot. A butt is usually a filter made from cellulose acetate, which can take up to 25 years to biodegrade. A study, reported in New Scientist in June 2014, “found that one cigarette butt soaked in a litre of water for 96 hours leaches out enough toxins to kill half of the fresh or salt water fish exposed to them.”


I have long wondered why we Brits litter our streets, parks and countryside. That smoker’s behaviour finally got me trying to answer the question. And trying to do something about it.


One reason why people litter was probably shown by that woman: they don’t think they are littering. I have been guilty of this myself. For years I assumed it was okay to throw an apple core or banana skin into the nearest hedgerow. Nobody will see it. It will rot quickly. Until the day I heard a child behind me ask the adult with her what I was doing. I didn’t hear the answer. Perhaps there was none. But what example had I set that child? She didn’t know the apple core was biodegradable. A man was showing her it was okay to throw stuff you no longer want into a bush.


Shortly after leaving that jar of cigarette butts in the architects’ doorway I helped organise a clean-up of our street. It’s about 500 metres long. Over twenty neighbours were glad to get out in early December (socially-distanced, of course) to fill more than fifty 80-litre bags with mud, leaves, glass and plastic bottles, plastic bags, face-masks (we lost count of these), rubber bands (thanks Mr Postman), plastic and cardboard food packets and, yes, still more cigarette butts. Several people were shocked at how much rubbish had been chucked and lain undisturbed in one of Bath’s smarter streets. More than one criticised the Council for “not doing its job”.


And here we come to one of the most common explanations for all this litter: They will clear it up. Ah yes, the ubiquitous, faceless “They”. A few days ago I passed one of those volunteers chatting to his neighbour. The two were wondering who had sealed some paving stones in the pavement outside their doors. I told them it had been done by two Council workers after I had emailed the Council and told them the stones were a trip-hazard. The volunteer thanked me, adding “Good to see them do something right.” His neighbour merely looked across the road and said “Why don’t they do something about those trees then? Should be cut back.” My suggestion that he contact the Council about it was met with a shrug.


I suspect that man (a serial non-volunteer) would subscribe to the view that anti-litter campaigners* say is very common but is seldom voiced outside of social media: It’s not my job to keep the street clean and tidy; that’s what I pay Council tax for. Or even: Littering gives people a job.


Early this year my next-door neighbour demanded that a litter bin on our street which had been removed by the Council, without warning or explanation, should be restored. This bin is the only one on the street and had sat at the bottom of the steps which lead up to one of the most popular beauty spots in the city – hillside fields owned by the National Trust with splendid views westward to Bath Abbey and beyond. The fields were never litter-free but in the last 18 months of pandemic they have become a rubbish dump. The Council’s initial response to him, me and our residents’ association?


“... further monitoring of this site by our Environmental Enforcement Officers has ratified the original decision that the location does not require a litter bin.”


How do you enforce the environment? Anyway, despite twice deciding not to reinstall the bin, the Council installed a new one a month later. It immediately proved it was required but some idiots decided to leave their still-smouldering barbecue coals in it. The bin had to be replaced and is still there, overflowing with discarded rubbish every weekend (see photo).


Why tell you this saga of our street’s one bin? Because it shows you that the authorities don’t know what to do. A bin attracts more rubbish than it, or the Council, can cope with. No bin means more littering. At least it does in the UK.


Laziness, drunkenness and sheer bloody-mindedness are all reasons why some of us Brits litter. But the main reason is cultural. It has become the norm to do so. See an empty crisp packet or plastic bottle by the side of the road or in the bushes and you don’t feel guilty when you add to the detritus with your empty drinks can or pizza box.


How do you change cultural norms? Slowly. But it can be done. Singapore was not always a state where littering the street could land you in jail. When it was a British colony (perhaps because it was a British colony), its streets and public spaces were covered with rubbish.


Japan is often offered as a model of a non-littering society by those who clearly didn’t know the country thirty years ago. When I was last there in autumn 2019 for the Rugby World Cup I watched in admiration as Japanese fans around me ensured they left none of their rubbish behind in the stadium at the end of the match, nor in the buses that took us back to the fan zone in the city centre, nor in the fan zone itself. It is true that when I lived in Tokyo in the early 1990s the main streets and parks were free of litter during weekdays and all weekend. So were the city’s subway stations and trains. But if you went down any back street or alleyway, looked down into the city’s many canals, or walked along the waterfront, you would find plenty of discarded rubbish.


When I climbed Mt Fuji one August night in the 1990s I saw in the torchlight that our path wound through a layer of drinks cans and bottles. When descending after sunrise we slipped and slid through a scree containing as much trash as stones. Some of the litter was human shit. Since then local governments, together with some 6,000 volunteers from the Fujisan Club (set up in 1998), have worked hard to clear away the rubbish, persuade climbers to take their garbage home, and installed many more toilets. Yet in May 2019 the litter on the mountain’s lower slopes and approach roads was still so bad that the Mt. Fuji Clean-up Committee was founded and, later, crowd-funded to tackle the problem.


But Japanese attitudes to littering in general have indeed changed for the better. Why and how? A series of strictly-enforced waste management laws were passed in the 1990s. At the same time there were well-funded anti-littering campaigns across the country, many involving school-children. Cities and towns now vie with each other to have the best recycling rates. Gomi (rubbish) Guides, some tens of pages long, are sent to every citizen telling them what can be recycled where and when. Result? Japan recycles 77% of its plastics, twice what we achieve in the UK and nearly four times more than the USA.


Two other things also account for the reduction in littering in Japan: the lack of public litter bins and their “Don’t walk and eat at the same time” culture. The key message of those anti-littering campaigns was: “Take your gomi home”. By coincidence, after the 1995 Sarin gas attack by domestic terrorists on the Tokyo subway (killing 13 and seriously injuring 6,300), litter bins were removed from almost anywhere that Japanese people congregated. The people had a stark choice: take your rubbish home or throw it on the ground. They have chosen to do the former.


When I was in Japan in 2019 I often ate food bought from street-stalls. When I first asked where I could throw away the packaging and hashi (chopsticks), the stallholder indicated the Japanese around me. They were eating and drinking by the stall and those who had finished gave the rubbish back to him. There are public bins but usually only by rows of vending machines (there are several of both at the top of Mt Fuji...next to the toilets...and the post office) and installed there by the machines’ manufacturers**. The Japanese stand or sit to eat and drink. They will take whatever they want from a vending machine (the choice is vast) and either take it to a place where they can sit down or stand by the machine and consume what they’ve bought. If the latter, the packaging ends up in the bin.


In this habit they are like the French. When I took a couple of French friends to London in 2015 to watch a rugby match (another World Cup, this time in the UK), they were astonished by many aspects of English culture. Neither had ever been to England before (one thought he had for a match in Cardiff; I put him right). One of the things that stunned them most was the sight of Londoners outside South Kensington tube station drinking cups of coffee while walking past empty tables and chairs on the pavement. One of them reminded me of it when I was in France earlier this month. Is it possible that this is one of the reasons why the French village where I have a house is free of litter (though, as I said in my last article, not dog-shit). The village has its own river beach two kilometres away beside the Dordogne and next to the village’s rugby pitch. Local families and visitors-in-the-know will spend many of the days of summer picnicking on that riverbank. And locals will come watch their teams play against each other throughout the autumn and winter. Hardly ever have I seen any litter left behind. There are rubbish bins; they are sometimes full but never overflowing.


Can the British clean up our act? Maybe. But it will take time. I doubt that Singapore-style anti-littering laws would work. Councils simply don’t have the time, money or manpower to enforce them. A Government-run, Food and Drink Business-funded anti-littering campaign might have a positive effect, especially if run alongside an effort to teach children the importance of keeping our cities, towns and countryside litter-free. Most important though is to get enough people to take responsibility to stop this littering epidemic. We shouldn’t expect Them to do it but instead volunteer to clear up ourselves. An example needs to be set.


Back in January I began doing a fortnightly litter-pick in my half of the street. Either by coincidence or because they saw me, a couple further down the street started doing this too. Unbeknownst to me, people further up the hill began litter-picking the National Trust fields while walking their dogs. More recently my street’s residents’ association has organised a two-person litter patrol to not only collect litter in the same fields each weekend evening but to offer large rubbish bags to those picnicking and partying. We wondered if we would get some hostility. Quite the opposite. All have been appreciative, some have been grateful, a few guiltily admitting that they didn’t bring enough bags to take their rubbish away.


Will this reduce littering in our street and the surrounding area? Let’s see. Already there has been some positive publicity on social media (eg Nextdoor). Will litterers regard those of us who pick up what they throw away as Them and carry on littering? Probably most will. But if some start to see others taking their rubbish home with them, maybe, just maybe, they will change their behaviour.


*One of the best is Elaine Massing. Have a look at https://off-the-ground.org/. And there is the US humorist, David Sedaris, known as Pig Pen in his village in West Sussex because of his heroic night-time litter-picking.


** advertising the manufacturers’ care for the environment and its wares, such as Asahi’s popular soft drink Calpis, which, when said by a Japanese, sounds like cow piss to an English speaker..

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