Growing concern over the dangers of plastic pollution has made litter a more ‘sexy’ issue, writes Donald Anderson.
I was a candidate for the council in Marchmont in Edinburgh in 1984 – so long ago I had hair. Eighties Edinburgh, like many communities at the time was devastated by mass unemployment and deprivation to the degree that even in leafy Marchmont unemployment was way worse than it is now in areas like Craigmillar.
For the campaign we did a resident’s survey. We pored over the responses to see people’s views on the big issues of the day so that we could campaign on them.
Top of the list was dog fouling and not far behind was litter. There was a palpable air of disappointment in the room as we contemplated that whilst people may have shared the anger we all felt about the damage to the country of a crushing recession, punters were more concerned about the state of their streets. I never forgot that lesson.
The fact is people become politicians because they’re motivated by other issues, and generally those things are big ideological causes like deprivation, the state of the economy or, as in more recent times the politics of Independence and Brexit. Almost no politicians come into politics to fix things like litter. The only prominent example I can think of is former Westminster Council Leader Dame Shirley Porter. Not a good example – she was awful and corrupt.
Sadly, litter issues and problems are still a part of Scotland’s landscape as much as our mountains and glens. In Edinburgh, we’ve had a bins crisis – thankfully easing, in Glasgow, resident Louise McLean felt so ashamed by comments she overheard from tourists that she started ‘No Clean City’ a brilliant community campaign. In Aberdeen, the state of the Tilly area also prompted residents there to start their own local clean up, and recently sun-seekers in Broughty Ferry left so much litter it has, rightly, caused outrage in the local press. More than 80 per cent of our roads are impacted by litter and half of us have seen someone throw litter out of their car.
The post-recession cuts have taken huge swathes of staff from council cleansing departments and that strain has shown in every council in the land. It’s not been easy for councils to keep on top of litter.
As a fully paid up member of the glass-half-full club, I’m still relentlessly optimistic. There are good reasons for that. David Attenborough – my all-time hero – and the ‘Blue Planet’ programme have done more to raise awareness of the impact of litter on the environment than anything I can think of. The sight of albatross parents unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic was genuinely heart-rending. Litter became something different after that programme. Rather than just being something ugly, everyone now realises how deeply damaging it is to their community and to the planet.
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One of the greatest assets in the fight for a cleaner Scotland is the environmental charity Keep Scotland Beautiful (KSB). They’re a full-on campaigning organisation working hard all year, every year to make Scotland cleaner and better. Like David Attenborough, KSB is a ‘national treasure’.
I’ve been lucky enough to see it in the past, as a politician, helping measure and improve cleanliness, and recently, as a community activist, helping organise clean-up activities in Edinburgh’s Burdiehouse Burn Valley Park. They do an amazing job helping promote clean-ups throughout the country and raising issues like their recent campaign on roadside litter.
Another chink of light I have seen is with the NHS and the council in Edinburgh funding Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust to get people to exercise more in the deprived areas of south Edinburgh. Guess what, one of the most successful of the many activities carried out has been to organise clean-ups. The number of clean-ups has increased, and people have been encouraged to ‘get out more’ gaining exercise, fresh air and making friendships along the way. It’s exactly the kind of proactive policy that improves the quality and length of people lives, whilst making their communities cleaner and better. Let’s have more of that.
There’s hope for politicians too. I was hugely impressed at the recent announcement by Labour’s Claudia Beamish on litter. Rather than simply attacking the SNP Government and scoring party points, she did something much more radical. She called for more community clean-ups to tackle the scourge of litter. A complete breath of fresh air. Wouldn’t it be great if all the main parties came together to promote clean-ups. What a message that would send.
And all over Scotland communities are getting more organised, and that’s much easier than ever thanks to social media. There’s the wonderful ‘No Clean City’ initiative in Glasgow, the fabulous ‘Leither’s Don’t Litter’ in Edinburgh. In Aberdeen, the pupils of Riverbank School recently joined the ‘Tidier Tilly’ campaign, and then in Dundee businesses and the community have come together to develop a radical new ‘Community Litter Prevention Action Plan’. Great stuff.
In Edinburgh’s Burdiehouse Burn Valley Park, this year’s ‘Big Spring Clean’ was the biggest ever. The Friends group has had people stopping us and thanking us for our work. And people who drop litter see all this activity which helps change their behaviour too. This year our park has stayed much cleaner – not perfect, but cleaner.
We need to stop litter at source. People need to understand that like drink driving this is something which is seriously anti-social and has huge consequences for our environment. Most plastic and litter dropped will not go away until it is lifted and disposed of properly. It may not yet be ‘sexy’ politically, but with more people getting active it can be. Getting residents involved helps communities, but also helps those who join in to lead longer and more active lives. Let’s support our communities to increase action and clean-ups, let’s stop the litter bugs at source and let’s make sure that one of the most beautiful countries in the world is also one of the cleanest.