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Happy 65th Birthday Litter?

13 April 2021

5 mins

When my grandparents were young there was virtually no litter, in fact when my parents were born there was virtually no litter but by the mid 1950’s litter was becoming a problem resulting in the first Litter Act in 1958.

When I was born The Wombles was a television series, they were fictional pointy-nosed, furry creatures living in burrows, who aimed to help the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish in creative ways.  These days volunteer litter pickers seem to be using the Wombles name as they seek to clean up the nations litter.

Fast forward to today and the litter problem is now worse than ever.

As an avid walker and mountain climber it still surprises me how much litter there is in the countryside.  A few years back I climbed the three highest peaks in the UK and found litter on all of them.  I’ve also climbed the highest peak in North Africa and found litter on that, why do even people who like nature (assuming they do) leave litter on the very thing they are there to enjoy.

It shouldn’t come as much surprise the cost of litter to both the economy and environment is huge!!

  • Litter costs more than £1 billion a year in clean up bills nationally
  • 30 million tonnes of litter are collected from our streets every year – enough to fill four Wembley Stadiums
  • Chewing gum costs local authorities £20,000 a year to clean
  • 99% of streets in town centres have cigarette litter
  • 62% of people in England drop litter – but only 28% will admit to it
  • Litter is causing damage to rivers, seas and marine life
  • Littering is accountable for the deaths of millions of animals but is also a cause of an increase in vermin
  • Litter contributes to soil, waste and air pollution
  • Litter contributes to flooding

These days its less fictional pointy-nosed, furry creatures living in burrows that are interested in your waste and they are never far away.  They feed on your discarded litter, reproducing every 3 weeks with litters of 6-20 babies.  Rats can cause damage to buildings, cabling and are able to chew through soft concrete, wood, plastic, aluminium, and even cinder blocks are no match for these rodents.

Environmental Impact

It’s nearly three years since Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II raised the issue of plastics in the ocean but littering continues to contribute to this. Litter travels, with 80% of the plastic found in the ocean estimated to have come from land-based sources. Litter can be washed into drains, streams, rivers and ultimately the ocean. 

It can also contribute to blocking drains causing flooding.  Litter containing food feeds vermin such as rats whilst some animals can get entangled in littered objects and die a slow and painful death. Items like broken glass, pins, and other sharp objects present in the litter can injure animals who tread on them unknowingly. Some substances present in the litter can be ingested by animals and produce toxic effects inside their bodies, irreversibly harming them.

Litter and the law

  • The main piece of legislation covering littering and refuse is Part IV of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) 1990. Crucially, section 87 of the EPA states that it is a criminal offence for a person to drop, throw down, leave or deposit litter in a public place. It carries a maximum fine of £2,500 and can be tried in a magistrate’s court but the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act (CNEA) 2005 also allows for on the spot fines (Min £75)
  • Updated laws mean councils no longer have to prove who committed the offence, with car owners responsible for anything thrown from their motor vehicle.

So given that it is illegal to litter why are we still a nation of litter louts?

A recent article in the Independent rightly highlights the environmental as well as health and safety risks.  It notes the reactions of an 11 year old to the litter being generated but suggests we should consider and perhaps have empathy to those whose emotions and/or home life may be the cause of them littering.  However given the impacts I have already mentioned is this a legitimate excuse?

Every time there is a spell of warm weather in the UK the masses descend to our beaches and parks to enjoy the sun. While its great to see these places being enjoyed it comes with the inevitable rubbish that gets left behind. Another article on the BBC news talks about the amount of litter left by crowds enjoying the sunshine in Cardiff Bay but cited the lack of bins as potentially being a contributing cause of the litter. Maybe there aren’t enough bins in some locations. Surely though if you can take those items with you, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to take the rubbish away until you find a suitable place to dispose of it!


Each week the Universities gardens team spends 150 hours on everyday litter picking, more if there is an event or exceptional occurrence, that’s over 7500 hours per year or more than 200 working weeks. In 2019 the team set up a small group who participated in the nationwide Hedgehog Friendly Campus initiative. As part of this they were required to run staff and student litter picks.

There is no excuse for littering. If there are bins please use them, if you’re not close to a bin take the waste home, it takes little effort or time. 

This is our campus, our environment, our planet and we need to respect it please. 

Sustainably Speaking

Loughborough University Sustainability Blog

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