Diary of a litter picker: why do people throw litter?

Daily Mail Online

Sophie Neville on a beach clean – photo copyright Daily Mail

Why litter? It is illegal. Why is rubbish chucked out of vehicles passing through an area like the Lake District, where jobs and businesses depend on the beauty of the surroundings?

Is littering an instinctive reaction?  Do we, as humans, improve our chances of survival by discarding unwanted items that weigh us down? Early man must have dropped what he didn’t need without a second thought. Hunter-gatherers are active agents of seed dispersal, spitting out seeds and chucking vegetable matter away as they walk about.

My peers counter this. In answer to my question, they say:

  • ‘I care for the environment. It angers me when people don’t do the same!’
  • ‘Pure laziness. Litter throwers think, ‘Oh well, the local authorities employ someone to clear up behind me and throw rubbish out of vehicles as they drive along while on their mobiles.’
  • ‘Smokers mindlessly drop the cellophane, then the butt, then the packet…’
  • ‘Selfishness and laziness, with no love for nature.’
  • ‘They feel entitled.’
  • ‘No respect for the environment, other people or themselves.’
  • ‘Smokers are by far away the worst. Cigarette butts are litter.’
  • ‘Bitterness. They feel let down by society and have given up caring.’
Rubbish - cigarette butts
  • ‘Combo of laziness and the belief that somebody else will be around to pick up after them. My father once threw a candy wrapper on the ground on my college campus. I picked it up and stuck it in my pocket for later disposal. He saw me and asked, “Did you pick that up?!” I said, “Yes.” And I never saw him throw trash on the ground again.’
  • ‘Mindless behaviour. Education is needed: education, education.’
  • Littering – or taking responsibility for rubbish – is a learned activity.
  • Keep Britain Tidy’s litter ambassador Jim Honeychuck quotes an academic paper: ‘There’s a kind of scale. On the one end you get mindless littering by those with little or no mind like junkies, drunks, and toddlers. At the other end you see deliberate, bloody-minded littering, as in holding litter until there is a clean area to foul. That’s a sign of hatred for the community, and perhaps for oneself. (“This is how I see my life, a mess…”) The behaviour at those two ends of the scale can’t be influenced much. In between are those who have always used the floor as a bin, those who would use a bin if there were one, those who use “virtual” litter bins, like planters, walls, the top of shrubbery… That is where improvement can occur.’
  • ‘Some people need a lead; the more good examples set, the better it will be.’
  • Producers could help by using bio-degradable wrapping.

Now that plastic pollution has become a worldwide problem, endangering wildlife and threatening marine fish stocks, we need to guard against litter and pick it up. Every year the RSPCA is called out to rescue thousands of animals caught in rubbish. One cigarette stub will pollute seven litres of water. While collecting litter costs millions of pounds a year, it costs us nothing to bend down and collect a few items a day.

Could you collect litter or go on a beach clean? It can be fun! You get to keep fit, walk the dog and make a huge difference. The finds often prove interesting. I have quite a collection of tennis balls and come across lost or stolen items that have been returned to grateful owners. Keep Britain Tidy have advice on safety and useful kit here: www.keepbritaintidy.org

To see a list of 20 reasons why is it good to collect litter, please click here

Rubbish - litter heroes ambassadors logo (2)

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

34 thoughts on “Diary of a litter picker: why do people throw litter?”

  1. Quite agree. We often drive along the A66 in Cumbria and see the council workmen risking their lives to pick up litter.

      1. We still do on a casual basis, though during my time as head of a conservation charity I organised many. Everyone should help if they can, and the education message is vitally important to get across. People just shouldn’t litter..

  2. There is a lovely little book (available on Amazon) entitled “The Day The Ocean Went Away” which you might enjoyed. It is aimed at educating children to not simply throw rubbish (particularly plastic) away.

  3. They should be made to see how dangerous it is for farm animals and wildlife by being shown graphic examples in the flesh – that would stop some of them (but not all unfortunately). It’s basically mindless folk who do it though…

    My mother once saw some kids in the Outer Hebrides eating sweets and throwing each wrapper on the ground. Each time they did it, she picked each wrapper up (singly) and put it in the nearby bin. In the end, they were shamed into doing it themselves. This was about 20 years ago now though – you’d probably get a kick in the face by today’s yobs nowadays!

          1. Doesn’t help that, around our way, they’ve not been emptying the recycling and garden bins for 2 months now so I think people will end up flytipping all that (or just putting their recycling into the normal bin)

              1. I’ve got no idea what would help to tackle fly tippers. I think littering yobs should be made to look foolish when caught by publicly making them pick up litter though…

              2. I never understand that – there’s so many dog-poo trees (as I call them) where there’s a black plastic bag full of the stuff dangling from a branch. They also stuff them into dry stone walls – very nice for the farmer – NOT! I think they’d be better just getting their dog to go in the long grass and not bag it myself – at least it would eventually rot down.

              3. I think they think they’ve done their bit bagging it up! I think the takeaway culture has a lot to answer for – I’d happily see it stopped and people just eat at home or in restaurants again…

          2. Interesting things must have change , when I grew up in England in 60/70s I remember taking things to the dump for free , even a friends old mini. I drove it there and walked home. I still remember the worker directing me where to put it!

  4. We visited Arne RSPB reserve (Poole Harbour) yesterday. As he exitted the car park at around 16:30, the driver of a maroon car, having presumably enjoyed the natural surroundings on his visit, deposited his carefully thought-out offering of a sweet wrapper out through his car window. That’s what you/we are up against; constant, casual indifference.

      1. Good point! I have to be creative to find a place to hang a plastic pag for my trash as I drive a lot in my work. A built in couple of hooks would be a great help!

  5. Hi Sophie , good for you to pick up trash/rubbish as you walk your georgeous dog! In the USA most folks have to pick up their dog waste so a little extra pick up would not be so bad….
    FYI Sophie, I Give you permission not to separate the trash you picked up , it’s no longer suitable for recycling , it’s contaminated trash which will end up as trash in the recycle center anyway 😇👍. Warren

  6. Oh one other point, but no excuse, is 300 years ago everything was made from ‘natural’ resources , fish nets, clothing, vehicules(wood), almost all these items quickly degraded , watch a fisherman fix nets Cut out the bad , throw off the dock and repair . When the material changed to 100 year life cycle the practices did not! Ceramic are one of the few old items that have lasted from the pre industrial revolution age….
    But not excuse in modern age. Teaching children is the only way but it take a couple of generations to make it happen. I believe this is being done like the anti- polloutions messages they get now. Cheers Warren

  7. I think that most of the time it’s thoughtlessness or can’t-be-botheredness. We are lucky here and have an excellent litter-picking group which keeps our village relatively clean. I think education in primary schools would help; as would, perhaps, bringing back the ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ videos on television.

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