Litter disposal and accumulation is one of the fastest growing threats of the future, with 6.4 million tons of litter entering the oceans annually and a further 14 million tons collected from the streets of Europe every year. The new European Litter Prevention Association has established a number of activities, with the aim of achieving a litter-free Europe by 2030. Anna Lacey of Helping Hands Environmental offers an update.
In a survey conducted by Europe’s Environmental Strategy Framework division across 32 sites in Europe, hotspots of litter accumulation included shores close to populated areas, particularly beaches, highly populated cities and areas of poverty within these but also commercial areas. In addition they found abundant deep sea canyons where the litter originating from land has accumulated in large quantities with plastics making up the majority. The European Parliament reported recently that 80 per cent of all plastic debris is made up of some eight billion plastic carrier bags being littered annually in the EU.
The primary causes for this rubbish epidemic are our societies’ unsustainable production and consumption patterns, poor waste management strategies and the lack of awareness among Europe’s populations generally.
We are in the midst of a throw away consumerism that is currently costing Europe an estimated €13 Billion per annum to clean up.
A European Commission survey in 2013 showed that 49 per cent of Europeans were visually aware of a litter epidemic in their neighbourhood and that the cleanliness of an environment affects community spirit, trust in local authorities and personal well-being. It also affects people’s level of respect for themselves and others. The EU survey also found that a third of Europeans felt better enforcement of anti-litter laws and communication campaigns would be more effective ways of reducing litter than, say, increasing the number of street litter bins.
So it would seem that the key to litter prevention is a combination of good communication and a better understanding of human behaviour.
Several organisations’ clean-up campaigns have been implemented in Europe over the past few years to tackle the litter problem and give visibility to the issue.
By being part of a ‘clean-up’ of their environment, participants can see how much litter is being dumped in their neighbourhood which provides a unique opportunity to raise citizen’s awareness of the litter problem and to help change people’s behaviour.
The European Parliament has pledged to review the funding available to EU cities for improving the management of waste and has implemented several levies, taxes and bans over recent years to help to reduce levels by 80 per cent and in particular halve the consumption of plastic bags by 2017. A Clean Europe Charter was announced in 2013 also pledging to build and strengthen a culture of cleanliness across Europe with the aim of making littering as socially unacceptable as drink driving is today.
However there is still a lack of funding for many EU councils for local clean-up campaigns to engage communities for social change but also for local authorities to invest in modern equipment to improve the physical and efficiency aspects of litter collection.
Changing attitudes to litter
Through its close partnerships with the UK’s leading anti-litter organisations such as Keep Scotland Beautiful, Keep Britain Tidy, Keep Wales Tidy, Marine Conservation Society and many more national and regional anti-litter groups, HH Environmental has played an active role in the UK in educating and changing people’s attitudes towards litter.
The Helping Hand Company specialises in litter clearance equipment while also being an active supporter of environmental education through the provision of clean-up kits for schools, promotional and educational leaflets about how to organise clean-ups and supporting volunteers with incentives to help drive communal enthusiasm for activities such as Clean Up Britain.
Over the last 12 months, HH Environmental has struck up a new partnership with the new European Litter Prevention Association to offer support for Europe-wide clean-up activity but also to help research the varying approaches and attitudes towards street cleansing and littering in Europe.
At its first ‘Stop Litter Now!’ conference in Brussels last year Derek Robertson, president of the association was “proud to bring together litter campaigners from 20 countries in Europe so that we could learn from each other and share experiences in improving local environments and changing behaviour”.
The over-riding objective of the Clean Europe Network is to achieve a litter-free Europe by 2030. Certainly this will be no easy feat given different parts of the EU deploy different amounts of resource and energy into tackling their litter problem. “At the conference we released information on the scale of the problem we face, with the bill for litter clearing across Europe now at an unbelievable €13 billion,” reports Robertson. “Our dysfunctional relationship with litter is costing us well over €1.3 million per week.”
In some countries litter is still collected by hand and environmental and educational policies simply do not exist to provide any legislation or leadership around the littering issue. Without this leadership, legislation or educational policy social norms cannot be changed and this is where the EU battle against litter lies since an individual’s behaviour is directly affected by accepted social norms.
HH Environmental’s work with its charitable partners and research within Europe has illustrated that social norms can be directed or guided to improve the social norms concerning tolerance of litter and the act of littering itself. However it has also uncovered that the lack of funding for some EU councils to initiate clean-up campaigns or invest in new cleaning equipment and methodologies has in itself slowed down the process of changing social norms because the lack of visible attacks on litter at local authority level actually results in litter build-up by citizens who turn a blind eye because they feel it is the local authorities’ responsibility to clean up and persuade people to change attitudes a sentiment shared by 74 per cent of UK citizens according to a Keep Britain Tidy national survey.
Sometimes people just need to be reminded they should not litter even though in the course of our busy lives the issue of litter often does not cross our minds.
In the Spring of 2015 HH Environmental introduced its new Dutch partners, Nederland Schooner, to its first-ever Eco School in Birmingham; St Francis Xavier Catholic Primary School – one of the very first Eco Schools created in partnership with Sandwell Council, Tipton Litter watch and the support of HHEnvironmental and Keep Britain Tidy.
St Francis Xavier Catholic Primary School has won the sustainable schools award and Environmental School Champions status certified through the Tipton council litter watch campaign and prides itself on its conservation work and environmental teachings that are now embedded within the school ethos. “Our school has a team of ‘eco rangers’ made up of children from every class in the school,” explains head teacher Andrew Dickinson. “Their jobs include ensuring that all pupils and teachers are recycling used paper, turning off light switches and computers when they are not in use and keeping the school litter free.”
Attempting to modify existing education programmes is challenging. In many countries school curricula are prescribed
by the state which means anyone wanting to introduce a new element into the standard curriculum has to convince authorities of the importance of the subject they want to introduce. Some countries are more flexible than others. Depending on the country and the resources
available litter prevention organisations either focus strongly on educating children through school programmes or ignore that option completely.
In the UK and The Netherlands in particular School Eco programmes are readily available and HH Environmental has worked with its partners to support these successfully alongside local authority support. In France however, despite having educational officers at town hall level, there is no national eco school program and the government does not have any policy over the curricula on the matter.
Therefore any individual school activity has to be implemented by that school or in partnership and with the support of the local mayor. HH Environmental supported school clean-ups in the Bourgogne region of France last summer with the support of local councils and mayors but still has a long way to go before the in-country policy towards environmental education changes.
In addition the lack of any official clean-up organisation in France makes this country a hard one to crack in the war against litter. The approach to street cleansing here has never been challenged it would seem and there is little momentum or policy to facilitate the introduction of modern techniques and equipment.
“I was shocked on my first outing with a French litter clearance team,” said Anna Lacey, export manager for Helping Hand Environmental. “ I just couldn’t believe operatives were picking up street rubbish with their hands and dragging a heavy bin bag with the other – it was shocking and unhygienic.”
This initial taste of French litter clearance had come after outings with teams in the Netherlands where the approach and facilities available to agents was in sharp contrast. “In the Netherlands there is a huge respect for the street cleansing agent and the local authorities provide them with quality uniforms and facilities so it is not surprising that many stay in their jobs 20 years or more,” says Anna.
Elsewhere in Europe, Denmark seems to be the only country ahead of the rest reports Lacey, with an efficient policy towards litter clearance and eco education. “By far the most automated nation of the EU, the Danes are using vast sweeping and washing machinery to cleanse their streets and green spaces and Copenhagen has already attained the status of Greenest European City.”
In the Netherlands shopping centres compete to be named the cleanest in the land. In Ireland the national Litter League ranks the cleanest and dirtiest towns several times a year to name and shame.
It is highly costly for local authorities to deal with litter, annually approximately €17 billion, but there is a whole range of other ‘hidden’ costs that puts litter prevention right at the top of the priority list for the best managed cities. The Clean Europe Network hopes one day to establish a common litter monitoring methodology for European cities but it is only through painstakingly researching activities and methodologies at local levels within these different countries that we can glean how we can help local authorities work together for common efficiencies and educational actions.
HH Environmental’s 40 years of experience has taught it that people are key to achieving a culture of cleanliness. Its partnerships are created and developed to promote cleaner communities but legislation and funding facilitate clean-up activities and educating a nation.Together with the Clean Europe Network we hope to challenge different countries’ approaches to cleansing and to offer advice on improving both methodology and product.