Pick of the litter

Recycling and litter aren’t always approached together, but as Scotland is finding, there’s a case that they should be: more than half of littered materials are recyclable. 

In the past decade, household recycling rates in Scotland have accelerated at an impressive rate, increasing from less than five per cent to over 40 per cent in the past decade. For many, separating glass, cans, plastic, card and paper, and increasingly food, has become second nature. People now understand these are resources that have a value and potential to have another life.

It’s strange then that when people are out and about, this understanding can go ‘out of the window’ – sometimes literally in the case of car drivers and their passengers. Recent research from Zero Waste Scotland revealed that over half of all people in Scotland admit to having littered, so there’s no denying that litter is a real problem in Scotland, and one that the country urgently needs to address.  

The timing is important too. Scotland is a beautiful country, and with a boom in tourism expected as it hosts the Ryder Cup, the Commonwealth Games and Year of Homecoming, ensuring that it’s litter-free and looks its best is a really important opportunity. 

From fast food containers lining country roads, to newspapers blowing around city streets, and plastic bottles anchored onto beaches, litter is a blight on the landscape. But what about the value of these materials? At least 50 per cent of littered materials could be recycled; this would turn the problem on its head and provide an extra £1.2 million to the Scottish economy every year. Littered, they’re worth nothing, their value simply discarded. In fact, £53 million of public money is spent tackling litter and flytipping each year, money that could instead be put to a good use.

It’s apparent that a change in attitude is needed – the majority of people who litter do so out of habit and without considering the consequences. And as the saying goes, old habits die hard, and changing this behaviour will be no easy feat.  

This article was taken from Issue 75

To drive this change, in spring 2014, the Scottish Government will publish a new national litter strategy – the first since devolution. This has been the subject of a nationwide consultation and it has captured the imagination, with over 1,000 responses to an online poll commissioned by Zero Waste Scotland to promote it. The proposals in the consultation cover a range of approaches – from education in schools and through a national campaign, to increasing fixed-penalty fines and the range of people with enforcement powers. The aim is to develop a final strategy that looks not just at how we can clean up the problem, but how we can prevent it happening in the first place.  

Exploring fresh ideas will be vital if a real change is to be achieved. Zero Waste Scotland is currently exploring two such ideas with the Scottish Government that aim to tackle commonly-littered materials – first, a feasibility study into how a deposit-return system might work to offer an incentive for recycling drinks packaging; and second, the introduction of a mandatory five-pence charge for single-use carrier bags, which will come into force later this year. These are two very different approaches, one focused on increasing recycling of high-value materials, the other focused on promoting reuse of shopping bags – but the core message is the same: these are items that have a value but that are worth nothing when they’re reduced to litter.

It’s clear that there’s no one simple route to a litter-free Scotland, and that a varied package of solutions will be necessary to achieve the desired result. But with the right mix, the message can hit home, and the result will be far-reaching economic and environmental benefits.