If you are one of our regular litter pickers on the Estate, consider yourself as a superhero – a volunteer ranger going beyond the call of duty, fighting the crime of littering!
The problem is extensive with many miles of roadside verges and over twenty car parks or pull-ins to cover. In fine weather this week over thirty volunteers in seven groups dispersed to cover the Estate. As conservationists we take a pride in Ashridge and like to think of it as a litter-free zone in our polluted environment. Picking up other peoples litter, which often includes unmentionables can be considered as demeaning – that is why so few people do it. The Trust consider it to be an “unfortunate” part of the estate management.
Remember when there used to be a real fuss about litter? Back in the Sixties, Keep Britain Tidy was launching huge campaigns featuring celebs such as the Bee Gees, and Eric and Ernie, followed by Abba in the Seventies. Because it was new and eye-catching, we sat up and took notice. Our country was beginning to look a mess and the message struck home. Initially, things improved but then interest faded. Fast forward to 1988 when Margaret Thatcher picked up the baton, and launched a “Tidy Britain” campaign by picking up litter in St Jame’s Park and making it a political issue. It was no longer a trivial issue, but today we would regard that event as a cynical photo opportunity.
Somehow since that time we have grown to take litter for granted. It is almost as though we expect to find it as part of the landscape – and even as an unavoidable part of modern life.
Since 1960 the UK’s population has grown by over twenty per cent, but in that same time the amount of litter has risen by a whopping five hundred per cent. More than thirty million tons of rubbish are collected from our streets every year and local authorities spend around a billion pounds cleaning it up.
“If an area is neglected and badly maintained, crime and anti-social behaviour will increase, and vice versa,” said the chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy. “Litter breeds squalor. You feel it’s a squalid place, so you might as well behave horribly, because no one else is showing any respect for the area.” “Even worse, the problem is self-reinforcing. That’s because there is no simple divide between people who litter and people who don’t. Yes, there is a hard core of litter louts – mostly teenagers – who are doing it to flout authority, or because they’re too focused on their conversations to worry about where the litter falls”.
One analysis found that only 12 per cent of the population fall into the “Life’s too short” or “Am I bovvered?” camps, compared with 43 per cent who are “well behaved”. Instead, the hard-core offenders are vastly outnumbered by the occasional litterers – the furtive, reluctant types who try their best not to do it, and feel guilty, or blame the lack of bins, when they do. Surveys suggest that half of the public fall into this category every year – although that includes the lightest litterers, making up 27 per cent of offenders, who limit their wrongdoing to the occasional piece of food or fruit, and console themselves that “it’s biodegradable”.
Although people blame their littering on a lack of bins, when the bins are provided, the same area becomes an acceptable place to dump their waste, especially when they are full. That is why there are no litter bins on the Ashridge estate. You are not likely to catch the offenders in the act, and many of us would lack the courage to challenge them so perhaps the best alternative is to strive to set a good example, to nudge the collective social norm back towards being civilised.
The lesson from the scientists is that for those of us worried about litter, we cannot slacken our efforts because once it becomes acceptable to litter in a given area, the tendency becomes self-reinforcing.
Meet “Trash Girl” the latest superhero “on-message” in Norfolk.