I find it astounding that in 2012 we have a litter problem in our countryside. In so many ways our attitudes have come so far since the 1970s, 80s and even 90’s. ‘Green’ issues have become political and not just about lefty-liberalism; you don’t have to chain yourself to a tree or reside in a tunnel under the proposed route of a motorway to show you care about the environment. ‘Green’ issues have become accessible and acceptable like never before.
We’ve all heard of our 'carbon footprint' and 'ethically sourced' foods, many of us worry about the melting polar ice caps and biodiversity decline, and whether by hook or by crook we all recycle. Despite all of that, despite living in these environmentally-enlightened times, when seismic environmental changes are occurring- littering, such a simple issue to prevent, is getting worse.
A couple of weeks ago I became frustrated at the amount of litter strewn along the country lanes in this quite corner of Derbyshire, I assumed it was more apparent because it was exposed by the lack of vegetation or because like so many gripes it is prevalent when you look for it- but I was sure it hadn’t been this bad for years. I tweeted about it and many people up and down the country confirmed by suspicions- I wasn’t just a moaning do-gooder, I was a moaning do-gooder with a point.
So if there really is more litter- who is dropping it? And more importantly, why? In a spare half-hour I litter-picked a mile of the lanes nearest to the farm and gathered a full black bag of the stuff, and not just a half-hearted, loosely-tied bag of air, I’m talking about a burgeoning, ripping-at-the-seams bag of rubbish- but what do it’s contents tell us about our persistent litterers? What sort of person literally trashes the countryside in 2012?
The Disconnected: The whole picnic
A whole meals-worth of picnic wrapping all contained in a carrier bag and left in a hedgebottom- who is to blame for that? Well the food manufacturers have something to answer for given the amount of plastic wrapping- but what sort of family leaves all that waste behind?
Presumably to even opt for a picnic there must have been at least some perceived pleasure in dining al fresco, the culprits must have found this piece of countryside aesthetically pleasing enough to warrant stopping here to eat. Given that we’re talking about a remote country lane it’s safe to assume they drove here or cycled here, and we know they had a carrier bag- so why leave it?
Perhaps we live in a world in which we eat, and then leave. From fastfood to fine-dining once we’ve eaten, we stand-up and we walk away. Perhaps these people believe a countryside picnic is a brand name and this lane was an outlet. Perhaps they thought a ‘Countryside Picnic’ waitress would turn up after they’d gone. Either way, they were wrong.
The Selfish: wet wipes
No one can argue with hygiene and the people that disregard it can often be tracked down by nose alone, but we’ve all become rather obsessed by our quest to live in a sterile environment. We’ve all seen the adverts: bad mothers leaving their innocent children exposed to a teeming swarm of deadly bacteria or the neon glow of bacteria all over the entire kitchen and stemming from the uncooked chicken. Its clever marketing, it’s scare-mongering, and it’s little wonder we’re a nation of paranoid OCD sufferers.
The latest weapon in the arsenal of the over-wary is the anti-bacterial wet wipe. For just a few pounds you can carry a little pack around just in case you touch anything. They’ll kill all known germs and leave your skin coated in chemicals that make your hair drop out and render your children infertile (scare tactics of my own).
And sure enough they’ve reached the countryside. Despite being an undoubtedly clean environment, the sheer amount of these I found indicates visitors are terrified of contagion. Once their hands are wiped the wipee is then left holding a wiped wipe- they clearly have no choice but to drop it, then presumably wipe their hands again before fleeing the germs.
The Disregarding: Alcohol
Many of us enjoy a drink, and even more of us enjoy a day out- I find the two are best combined with a good village pub at the end of a walk but each to their own. In the hedgebottoms around here I found a surprising amount of empty cans and even a gin bottle- I don’t know what life throws at some people but when you find yourself knocking back half a bottle of gin in a country lane you probably have bigger things to worry about than what you do with your litter.
That said the vast majority of the cans were for the energy drinks and cheap lager that make an evening driving a Nova around Spar car park a much more enjoyable experience.
The Careless: Farm waste
People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones (or litter) and farms have a lot to answer for around here. The lanes are the traversed by farmers from across the area but we are one of only a handful of working farms in the area and are probably not blameless.
How farmers dispose of things such as plastic silage wrap is now monitored and it’s correct disposal recorded- but there’s nothing to stop long strips of the stuff taking flight in the wind before becoming entangled in the miles of hawthorn, bramble and barbed wire that divide our countryside.
I doubt farmers go around putting it there, or shoving the plastic corn bag or the mineral bucket in the hedge bottom or throwing their work gloves in the verge but it’s nothing a bit of good housekeeping wouldn’t solve. There are several things we’re advised not to do on our own doorstep- and littering is one.
The Misguided: Balloons and lanterns
A cloud of coloured balloons in a cloudless sky or a trail of glowing Chinese lanterns through the night sky are nice things to see- and they may drift out of sight but you’d be pretty misguided to assume they’ve disappeared. I’m forever picking the remains of balloons and lanterns up from our fields and hedges- I found two balloons on my litter-pick and a lantern a couple of days later.
In practical terms is launching 100 balloons really any different to ‘launching ‘ 100 carrier bags or drinks bottles or crisp packets? And in the case of lanterns there’s the added risk as the whole thing is aflame.
Its easy to sound like a killjoy when you’re complaining about something that people enjoy but on our small farm we’ve lost at least one cow to a humble balloon. I'm sure you'd agree that seeing a previously healthy cow abort her calf or end up destroyed for the sake of someone’s balloon is a tad sobering.
The Mindless: Dog poo in a bag, hung from a tree(!)
That’s dog dirt. Picked up in a plastic bag by the owner. Then hung from a tree. It defies all logic, sense and reason. Whatever the situation- if it fell out of your dog- it belongs to you.
I’ve tried to find an explanation or justification I really have- but I can’t. Putting it in a bag is a good thing- but then the whole point is to bin it. If you don’t like carrying dog crap around like a warm, squidgy souvenir then either don’t take your dog, or walk it somewhere you KNOW there are bins.
Leaving it in the countryside is like a big two fingers up to every other person who comes across it.
So who drops litter? Judging by the rubbish I found there are lots of different people doing it, and lots of different reasons why they do it. Be their actions disconnected, selfish, disregarding, careless, misguided, mindless or even malicious the one thing they all have in common is that they’re totally unnecessary.
Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the old ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign, or (heaven forbid) call the Wombles. Or maybe we need to look more closely at our attitude to the countryside and how it’s managed. Maybe as a society we’ve become accustomed to such things being ‘someone else’s job’.
One of the more bizarre items I found was a punnet that once contained Organic Blueberries. It’s a mad contradiction when someone who is presumably aware of their own wellbeing and that of the environment (and pay extra for it) is able to discard their litter so freely. There must be a breakdown between the perceived cause and effect of littering.
Such contradictions are an increasingly common feature in our society, in the same way we worry about the environment we still do bonkers things like buying bottled water, flying everywhere, and eat out of season produce we know has travelled half way around the world. Why do we do it- we do it because it’s only me, no one is looking, it’s just once, and someone somewhere will compensate for it by doing the correct thing.
It might not be a crime to think that way, but when 60 million of us think like that is there any wonder we’re seeing more and more litter in our otherwise beautiful countryside.