The true cost of Scotland's litter problem

I’ve blogged previously about why tackling litter is important to our overall vision of a zero waste society. 

Written By Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland  |  4 Jul 13

 In short, it’s about credibility: we can’t claim to be zero waste while such blatant evidence of our wastefulness still exists.

Our efforts to address this issue take a huge step forward today with the launch of the Scottish Government’s consultation on its first national litter strategy.  Now is the time for people across Scotland to engage with the solutions we need to stop litter.

To inform the consultation we’ve undertaken the most detailed study yet into the costs and impacts of both litter and flytipping and what we can do to tackle them. 

The scale of the problem is striking.  More than 250 million items are littered each year, and half the population admit to having littered at some point.  This has a direct cost to the economy of more than £50m in terms of clean up and prevention costs, almost all of which is borne by local authorities.  There are also indirect costs arising from the wider impacts on our communities, environment, and wellbeing.  And finally, it’s also a waste of resources: over £1.2m worth of value is locked up in the drinks cans, plastic bottles and other materials we drop as litter.

There’s clearly an economic case for action which is important to ensuring this issue gets the attention it deserves in the current climate.

But for me, the most important thing is understanding the behaviours that lead people to litter and addressing these at source.  I welcome the focus of the consultation on litter prevention.  This has to be our priority.  The most striking stats from our infographic on the report is the mismatch between how much public money is spent on clean up and how much is spent on prevention.  It’s a ratio of more than six to one, and that doesn’t include a monetised value for the time spent by thousands of volunteers on local community clean-ups.  Surely we have to reverse the balance here? If we don’t change littering behaviour, we will have to foot a never-ending bill for clean up, and suffer the wider impacts of litter in the meantime.  

We know that people from all backgrounds drop litter and that it is often done out of habit rather than as a wilful act.  It’s also influenced by social factors, such as the quality of a neighbourhood, and physical factors like the availability of bins.

Business has a role to play too, by looking at how they reduce the risk of their products and packaging ending up as litter and motivating positive behaviour from their customers.  We are looking to partners to support us in these aims, especially the grocery brands, retailers and food outlets we already work with.  

Enforcement action is a useful deterrent and proposals to increase fixed penalty notices will probably grab some of the headlines.  But it’s important we also keep the positive message to the foreground.  We need people to understand that fines exist for a reason.  The message, though, must be about value – the costs of dealing with litter, the value of the resources we consume, the importance of recycling, and the benefits of clean, safe neighbourhoods.  It is about all being more responsible for the communities in which we live and work.   In 2014 the spotlight will be on Scotland.  This is a real opportunity for us:  let’s use it to tell a positive story about a litter free Scotland.

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