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Hidden costs of litter spoiling the environment

Everyone has an opinion on litter – and most people say they hate it.

It makes places look unloved, it increases people’s fear of crime and it has adverse health and economic consequences. In 2013 the environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy released a report, Which Side of the Fence Are You On?, which explored many of the direct costs of litter and what they equate to.

It estimated that public sector land managers spend almost £1bn a year on keeping our streets clean and tidy and improving local environmental quality. Cleaning up litter is a significant part of this cost. 

Money spent by councils and other public bodies to keep the streets clean could, of course, be spent elsewhere on other vital public services. But the direct costs are not the only ones associated with litter and, if we are to truly reflect the scale of the problem, we need to look beyond the costs of simply cleaning it all up.

Until recently, little thought had been given to the indirect costs and economic impact of litter. Our understanding of the wider social and economic costs of litter is in its infancy. But indications from recent research in Scotland suggest that the direct costs of cleaning up litter are just the tip of the iceberg.

Keep Britain Tidy is keen to get beyond ‘clean-up’ and move society to a place where litter prevention is the norm and clean-up is not seen as the solution to the litter problem. To do this, it needs to be demonstrated that litter is not simply a problem for land managers but a problem for all sectors.

Devising solutions and changing behaviour will reduce clean-up costs for society as well as result in indirect benefits for the police, health service, companies and the general public.

With this in mind, Keep Britain Tidy commissioned Eunomia Research & Consulting to explore the indirect costs of litter in England. The results make for sobering reading, and confirm that litter is a problem that it is in everyone’s interests to address. It concludes that there are many indirect costs associated with litter, such as up to £526m for mental health, £348m for crime and £70.6m for litter and refuse fires.

Keep Britain Tidy

There is also a cost associated with the loss of material resource, which is material that could otherwise be captured and recycled, reused or turned into fuel and energy. Litter either remains in the environment or it is collected and typically managed as residual waste – either way, the material resource is likely to be lost. Given the ever-increasing cost of raw materials and the environmental benefits of using secondary materials in preference to raw material extraction, this is especially important.

Eunomia calculated the loss of material resource by working out the potential value of the littered material if it were to be disposed of and recycled. It is estimated that around 550,253 tonnes of street sweepings and litter were collected in England in 2010/11. Of this, 61.64% by weight falls into categories such as plastic, glass and paper. This gives an estimate of 339,176 tonnes a year of litter collected in England of potentially recyclable materials.

Using recent reports that focus on the composition of municipal solid waste, including litter, by Resource Futures along with WRAP’s material pricing data, it is possible to calculate the potential value of recycled material lost to littering.  

Currently, Keep Britain Tidy estimates the value of litter to be between £12.8m and £14.8m a year depending on the current recycling rates in England. As recycling rates get higher and resources become scarce, in line with Government commitments, this is likely to increase. Indeed, as kerbside recycling rates reach a plateau, it may be that local authorities are forced to look increasingly to on-street recycling to help them reach their targets.

Keep Britain Tidy’s own Recycling Inquiry, conducted with members of the public over two days in two locations in England, queried why mixed messages are being sent out. At home, people are told all the time to recycle. But when they are out and about, the messages change. Recycling is, in most places, an afterthought or add-on, and the focus of messaging tends to be on using a bin and not littering.

During the inquiry, participants told us that they wanted to see joined-up approaches to services so that the message to recycle, and the infrastructure and services to enable this, was the same whether at home or out and about.

So we must take up the challenge of changing behaviours – not just to reduce littering but also to recycle more when out of the home. This means we can capture the economic and social value of the daily items we throw away: the lunch packaging, drinks cans, plastic bottles and free newspapers.

Although litter is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, if we wish to increase ‘recycling on the go’, it will take a collective approach from all stakeholders. Councils are beginning to struggle financially now and face further budget cuts. This means they cannot work alone: more support is required from the Government as well as businesses that produce littered ‘resources’, working alongside land managers, civil society organisations and volunteers.         

Helen Bingham is communications and PR manager at Keep Britain Tidy

Diamond jubilee year

The stars came out to campaign

Keep Britain Tidy is celebrating its Diamond Jubilee in 2014. It is 60 years since the National Federation of Women’s Institutes voted to set up a campaign to ‘keep Britain tidy’ in response to what they saw as the worrying problem of litter.

A lot has changed in those 60 years. The world has been transformed beyond all recognition. We eat and drink on the go on a scale that those women could never have foreseen, and our consumption of the planet’s scarce resources has accelerated at an unsustainable rate.

In response to these societal changes, Keep Britain Tidy has also changed. It still campaigns on litter but does much more.

As an environmental charity, it runs programmes that help to connect people with their environment; it runs awards that recognise those who manage public spaces effectively to give people access to quality places; it supports those who educate the next generation on how to live more sustainable lives; and it advises communities on how to waste less.

It also works with businesses, waste companies and councils to encourage innovation, change behaviours and share best practice.

Past campaigns have involved many famous faces to capture public interest, as these posters show.

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