What a Load of Rubbish!

There are lots of reasons why I love my neighbourhood. Keira’s school is less than a mile away, the local shops and train station with regular connections into Central London are just a little further down the road. There are lots of open spaces nearby and the country side is just a short mountain bike trail ride away. The immediate environment in which I live is also really clean. You rarely see any litter on our local streets, and I think its absence is one of those small things that make a big difference.

I appreciate the ease with which I can travel into London. Lots of my work is based in London and it is oozing with history and culture which makes it a place where there’s never a dull moment. It’s also dirty, filthy dirty in places. There’s litter and trash everywhere, it’s unsightly and it’s messy and I think it speaks volumes about how Londoners and visitors to London really feel about the place. And it’s not just London that has this problem. Despite the efforts of our diligent team of street cleaners, there’s litter on the streets of my local town Wallington, and plenty of other places too.

Some of you may recall how in the mid 1980’s, Margaret Thatcher became ‘appalled’ at the state of London’s streets. UK 2000 was established soon afterwards under the high-profile chairmanship of Richard Branson with the instruction to “clean up Britain”. It quietly folded four years later and the problem persists to this day. And as a global population part of our collective legacy for future generations is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which some reports suggest is ‘twice the size of the continental United States’. Way to go people of the world, that’s one helluva dump we’ve built there eh?

It strikes me that littering is something we’re quite divided on. Some do it, some don’t. I was in a local town a couple of years ago when someone walked past me and dropped their fast food bag at my feet. I picked up the bag, said ‘excuse me you dropped something’ and handed it back. I was met with an unexpectedly angry outburst – the woman whose rubbish I returned threw the bag back at me along with a side order of multiple swear words. She stomped off in a rage and before I could react – an older guy picked the bag back up, ran after the woman and rammed it down over her head. Cue much applause from the growing crowd of bystanders and much embarrassment for the bag lady.

Part of the problem with litter is it’s one of those big things that provokes a reaction like ‘Why should I bother to pick up that discarded plastic bottle over there, what difference will picking up that one thing make?’

On my recent visit to Chicago I was impressed by how clean the city appeared. When I met John, Susan and Sabrina for lunch we spoke about this and it turns out there was a concerted campaign to tidy the place up in readiness for the bid to host the 2016 Olympic games. For now at least, even though Chicago was unsuccessful in the bid, the clean up seems to have worked. And in The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how the New York subway was transformed from a crime ridden unwelcoming place into a thriving transport system after a persistent effort to clean up the carriages and rid them of the graffiti that had blighted the place for years.

I’d like to close today’s post by telling you about a conversation I overheard on the train yesterday. An elderly couple who didn’t know each other said hello and started to chat. At some point the conversation turned to littering and the woman said, ‘When I’m out walking I take a carrier bag out with me and when I see a plastic bottle, or a glass bottle, or a can, I pick it up, put it in the bag and recycle it. I keep a little note in my diary of how many of these things I collect and at the end of last year I tallied it up.’ She went on to tell her conversation partner the numbers. I didn’t note them exactly in my head – but they were in excess of 1,200 plastic bottles, 1,000 cans and 1,000 glass bottles. She closed by simply saying ‘And that’s just me, in one year. Imagine if we all did that.’ Imagine indeed. 

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