We need to clean up our act

Enfield Wash artist Lennie Varvarides urges local people and organisations to do more to tackle he scourge of street litter

Street litter in Hertford Road, Enfield Wash
Street litter in Hertford Road, Enfield Wash

I don’t remember when street litter became ‘normal’ – but it is normal now.

London was reported as having the highest incidences of fly-tipping across the whole country between 2020/21 because people do this – they dump their litter. Social sensibilities are obviously not enough to stop that rubbish from dropping out of their hands and into our neighbourhoods.

According to stats from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, there were 20 fly-tipping incidents per 1,000 people in England on average in 2020/21. But London had almost double that, with 43 per 1,000 people.

But does anyone know why more people are litter dumping so aggressively these days? Is it really because people have lost their capacity to care, or is it more serious than apathy?

Dropping litter is a sign of an eroding society. But what is causing it? Can the decline of our environment mirror that of our human consciousness? Or is it the decline of our consciousness that is causing more litter pollution? These are the questions I ask myself because I want to understand why people dump litter where they live.

Fly-tipping is linked to economic factors. Some people will do it to avoid paying commercial waste collection fees, or because private landlords want to pack as many people as possible into their accommodation without providing facilities for the extra refuse.

Other people dump because they want one less thing to worry about, or maybe they don’t care about the effects on the environment because that seems too far removed from their daily lives. It could also be a lack of green education or a lack of self-respect, or it could even be even more serious than that.

The National Library of Medicine states that: “Apathy is a common feature of depression and cognitive disorders and is associated with impairment in executive function.”

The effects on the environment are obvious and long-lasting, but what about the effects on our mental health? It’s like no-one is pointing out the connection that people drop litter because they are apathetic and that they are apathetic because of their mental health and that the environment has an impact on your mental health. It’s like we are stuck in a trap of perpetually making things worse for ourselves and others.

Journalist and former Greenpeace board member Ros Coward said in 2018: “Research shows that litter affects people’s feelings of wellbeing and safety. Littered streets feel abandoned, and consequently their inhabitants do too. Litter ruins people’s enjoyment of the countryside and makes open spaces feel like waste grounds.”

Maybe people drop litter because they feel abandoned or alone or unable to cope and cannot care about their actions or the implications of them, because they are not able to care about themselves.

So what can we do to stop it? Most waste is made up of packaging, so it makes sense to pass the problem on to the big businesses that manufacture it. Big business needs to invest in bio-degradable packaging and be charged a pollution tax if they don’t comply.

Urgent legislation is needed around waste solutions for homes in multiple occupation (HMOs) and landlords should pay extra to provide adequate waste management for their tenants. HMOs wouldn’t be needed in the first place though, if councils invested in real social housing, instead of letting private landlords monopolise the market.

As always more recycling bins around congested areas and on high streets are needed together with more drop-off recycling centres.

Visible warnings and signage about litter fines are also needed. Fly-tipping is an illegal activity. If you see it in action, report it.

These suggestions won’t necessarily reduce the impact on our streets overnight, but litter doesn’t only end up on the high street. It ends up in our ocean, in our food, in our water supply, and even in our bodies, as well as impacting on our mental health. So even if you don’t see it dumped on your high street, it will still find its way into your body.

We know all this but knowing still isn’t enough. It is easier to change our behaviour and habits than it is to change the world around us. While one person cannot change much, they still have the power to at least not make things uglier.

Where we spend our money is the only immediate power we have. Think twice before buying fast fashion made of polyester  – plastic is released into our water supply every time these materials are washed. Single-use items like bottled water or take-out coffee cups are also ending up in our oceans and slowly affecting fertility too.

Consumption is the ugliest part of capitalism and I just want to try and live beautifully. Please ask yourself what small change you can make, to make where you live more beautiful and to commit to your own mini-intervention.

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