It is a wonderful thing to be reminded of the power to deliver positive change when we all come together. That’s the overriding impression as we draw a close on this year’s national Spring Clean – the voluntary clean-up activity over April and May co-ordinated by Keep Scotland Beautiful, your charity for the environment.
We make no apology for two strong emotions as we reflect on the achievements of this year’s Spring Clean – a sense of pride in the fantastic volunteers who played their part in cleaning up their local environment and a deep sense of frustration that so much work remains to be done in persuading others to dispose of their litter responsibly.
Every individual action in cleaning up is important in its own right, but the this year’s total of more than 40,000 volunteers stepping forward to take part in over 700 litter-pick events and other clean-ups is truly remarkable.
Volunteers, individually and in groups, have stepped forward to help deal with the irresponsibility of others, and they are having to do so because our littering behaviour is getting worse.
Keep Scotland Beautiful’s annual audit of the cleanliness of our streets and open spaces makes it clear that we have a real problem, and it’s getting worse. Last year’s analysis was the worst outcome in the last decade. We should be ashamed of it.
On the one hand, it’s shocking that people have to volunteer to clean up the mess left by others. But on the other, people do it because they are proud of their communities. So, whilst paying tribute to the clean-up movement, we need a massive national effort to change littering behaviour.
Businesses are increasingly playing their part too, Spring Clean 2019 benefited from strong support from Scotmid, in addition to more than 50 clean-ups organised by a wide range of businesses determined to play their part in delivering a greener environment.
Each individual is a hero, but I’ve been struck by the sheer diversity of our volunteers’ areas of focus – city centres to long distance footpaths, coastlines to forests and in every single part of Scotland.
This is now year five of the Scottish Government’s national litter strategy, which seeks to bring together the various sectors of society who need to work together to change attitudes to litter. It rightly identified that government had a major role to play, but so do businesses, local authorities, the charity sector and individuals and community groups. It was right to highlight the need for a partnership approach. It was right in highlighting the need for urgent action.
Five years on, we’re starting to see rising awareness of the problem, and increasing participation in the initiatives that are seeking to solve it. But what we really need is a national, and transformational, change in attitudes to littering behaviour.
It is still the case that too many people see others discarding litter and do too little to challenge that carelessness. It is still the case that some communities are blighted by litter and our public agencies struggle in the face of declining budgets to provide support. Our research shows that the impact of local environmental quality decline is highest in the most deprived communities, and that the cost is not just financial or environmental, it impacts on health and well-being outcomes as well.
Some new public policy solutions will play a part – a deposit return scheme to take drinks containers out of the litter stream, and making packaging manufacturers responsible for their products being littered. But the solution at one level is simple – individuals need to stop dropping litter – and society as a whole needs to be less tolerant of litter in the environment.
Spring Clean 2019 has been an outstanding success. Communities, and businesses have come together to reclaim areas that were becoming no go zones because of litter. The legacy will reach far beyond the simple one-off community clean up,hopefully building momentum throughout the year. Clean open spaces stay clean.
We want Spring Clean 2020 to be even bigger and better than this year’s record-breaking effort. With greater support and more resources from all sectors we can ensure this happens. You can take the first step towards playing your part by taking the Clean Up Scotland Pledge – you can find it online – and make your commitment to stand up for an end to our litter shame.
Derek Robertson, chief executive at Keep Scotland Beautiful.