Rubbish and litter – the unacceptable faces of British towns and country

by Chris Chant on 28/02/2011

Rubbish in an alleyway in Manchester, EnglandRubbish and litter are the among the most dismal banes of life for many of us who live in the UK. Lying sodden in gutters, blowing around the roads and matted against so many walls and fences, these are real eyesores that degrade our enjoyment of life, and in many cases are both insanitary and breeding grounds for disease. There have been many efforts to reduce the problem by means of ‘Keep Britain Beautiful’ campaigns of various types, but these have in general failed. The reason for this is simple: the campaigns appeal to civil pride, and the vast majority of those who litter are the thoughtless and/or imagination-free who possess no civic pride or are just plain careless, and whose littering of the streets and countryside probably reflects the manner in which they keep their homes and clothes.

Yet the answer to the problem is perfectly clear, if only the government would grasp the nettle and enact the appropriate legislation, which must have adequate teeth and be funded by the receipts of the programme outlined below. The programme would in itself reduce the amount of litter that makes our towns and countryside resemble those of a third-world nation, while the use of the revenues derived from the programme’s tax would allow the creation of better trained and better equipped ‘litter wardens’ (so creating more employment) to clear litter more effectively than local councils, and at the same time issue penalties to those who litter and, when tackled about the matter, refuse to recover the litter and place it in a bin.

It seems to me that the items that constitute most of the litter and rubbish are the following:

  • plastic shopping bags
  • cardboard and expanded polystyrene fast food and drink containers
  • sandwich wrappers
  • cartons of various types
  • the tins and plastic bottles of soft drinks, alcoholic drinks and water
  • chewing gum (both the wrappers and the gum itself)
  • cigarette packets

Once their contents have been removed, these all all too often just dropped on the street or hurled out of a car window.

The way to reduce the problem and fund the entire programme is to tax the offending materials to a level that will hurt the ‘end user’, namely the consumer. It is impractical to levy the ‘litter tax’ at the point of sale, so this will have to be done at the manufacturing stage, with all such packaging clearly identified with the name of the company purchasing it so that there can be no tax avoidance through the use of blank packaging. Thus the packaging manufacturer will have to pay the tax in the same manner as VAT, the cost then being passed on to the fast food chain, food manufacturer etc, which will them have to pass the cost on to the end user, i.e. the purchaser who drops the packaging and so creates the litter problem from which we all suffer.

To make the programme work and become self-funding, I suggest that the tax levied on these items should be high. Reasonable tax tariffs, it seems to me, would be something along the following lines:

  • plastic shopping bags £2.00
  • fast food and drink containers £2.00
  • sandwich wrappers £1.00
  • cartons £1.00
  • drink tins and bottles £1.50
  • chewing gum £1.50
  • cigarette packets £2.00

I am convinced that a programme of this type would be good for us all, at both the civic and environmental levels, and also offer the ecological advantages of reducing demand for containers of all types. It might also persuade some of those who live on fast food to switch to real food, which is cheaper, more nutritious and, perhaps most important of all, far better tasting!

Another item which could be added to the list is the aerosol paint container, whose additional cost might even deter graffiti ‘artists’.

[Photo by Tamlyn Rhodes]

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