Can of Worms – Litter in the UK

There is no denying it, most people have littered in some form or other, most people hate litter, yet a small minority of people have done something about it. It’s a simple truth.


Humans have always been good at making a mess; archaeology would be a lot harder without it. The trouble is now that there are quite a few many more of us around, all consuming and creating waste. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself but when the methods of dealing with the waste have a detrimental effect on the environment we all suffer. Widely known to be an illegal activity littering is covered under section 87 of the environmental protection act 1990. Section 89 of the same act also places the responsibility of keeping certain areas clear of litter on selected authorities.

Growing up exploring the countryside, I was always astonished at how litter managed to reach even the remotest of hedgerow or isolated forest. Through continued explorations across the country it never ceases to amaze me where you’ll find litter, from cars dumped down local gravel pits to cans of coke at the top of Ben Nevis.


The effects of litter are not only aesthetic. The RSPCA receives over seven thousand calls a year for litter related incidences. Balloon releases and sky lanterns, whilst meaning well, have started to be frowned upon for the potentially dangerous fall out, especially to marine life. It’s not always obvious how litter is damaging our countryside. Scientists from Royal Holloway University caught over eight thousand pieces of plastic being transported unseen underwater in a stretch of the river Thames over a three-month period. This was one stretch of one river so if the findings were to be similar in all of the UK’s major waterways there is a serious amount of unseen rubbish floating along damaging wildlife as it goes.


Through my own observations its cans that seem to make up the bulk of litter in my local countryside. Beer cans especially often end up being the final resting place for hundreds of invertebrates falling for the old-fashioned gardeners trick of the beFile_000er trap, which slugs and snails seem to find irresistible. Surely even this tiny alteration of local invertebrate numbers will have a knock on effect on the rest of the food web. Not only the direct damage caused to wildlife, imagine the environmental benefits if all those cans got recycled instead of dumped. Aluminium and steel are extremely energy intensive to manufacture. It is widely quoted that recycling an aluminium can uses five percent of the energy it would take to manufacture from the raw material. Aluminium ore mining is highly destructive to the environment so there is a genuine need to greatly reduce the reliance on the raw material and focus on recycling what is already in the system.

Cans are just one tiny element of the litter problem and when combined with the rest of illegal waste disposal we have a secret environmental disaster across the whole of the country.

There should be a huge financial incentive for the government to crack down on the issue, with the group Keep Britain Tidy estimating that the economic costs of litter in the UK could be as much as one billion pounds a year. Tackling the issue mostly comes down to local authorities that try various methods to try and eradicate the problem, but in this political environment of cutbacks there is little chance that they will be able increase this effort. It is therefore down to us, the great British public, to give them a helping hand and re-take our countryside.

Now I’m sure everyone who reads this will agree that litter is an affliction and is aware of its negative environmental impacts, but its not all doom and gloom. Large campaigns such as litter action UK are doing their bit to turn the tide and have so far removed over a hundred and fifty seven thousand bags of litter from our countryside. This number plus individuals and other groups, such as wildlife trusts and scouts, shows that there are people out there who are willing to make a difference and the vast majority of them actually find it an enjoyable experience; good for the soul as well as the countryside.

The time has come to take action and flip the odds. Lets make the picker-uppers out number the litterers and hopefully make the sight of litter an abomination rather than a part of the furniture of the countryside.

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Environmental management graduate and forest walker.

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