Emma Cowing: Rubbish response leaves a bad taste

Picking up after others is far from the perfect solution. Picture: Julie Bull
Picking up after others is far from the perfect solution. Picture: Julie Bull
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EVERY so often, the quiet streets of my little corner of Glasgow erupt in a cacophony of noise, colour and more varieties of fried food than previously thought known to man. There are benefits to living so close to a football stadium, but the amount of rubbish left behind after matches is not one of them.

One match day, I was peering out of my window watching cars illegally park on my street and wondering how long it would take the blue meanies to come along and slap a fine on their windscreens (in my neighbourhood this can make for a surprisingly entertaining spectator sport), when a large white van drew up with a sign along the side that declared its occupants to be the members of a certain football team’s far-travelled supporters club.

Around ten men in football strips piled out. The driver, the last to disembark, then reached into the van and swept out an enormous pile of McDonald’s wrappers, boxes and cups. Off they trotted in the direction of the stadium, leaving this heap of detritus directly outside my front gate, and my jaw on the floor.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I do not normally confront litterbugs. This would, no doubt, make me persona non grata with Jeremy Paxman, who piped up from behind his beard this week to tell the nation we should all be challenging litter louts to pick up after themselves.

“I have found when you confront people and say ‘excuse me, you just dropped this’, nine times out of ten, you might be unlucky on the tenth one, but nine times out of ten they will say ‘oh, sorry,’ and they will take it away,” he said on Monday night’s Panorama programme on the subject of litter, Our Dirty Nation.

“It’s a beautiful country and I just don’t understand why people want to make it full of shit.”

Well, he’s right on the second part. It is a beautiful country, and the increasingly shocking amount of litter to be found in our streets is a disgrace. Indeed, it is difficult for many right-thinking folk to wrap their heads round why it has become so commonplace, and so acceptable, to throw our own waste on the ground for someone else to pick up.

But on the first point, I care to differ. If Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight’s enfant terrible, belittler of monarchs and statesmen and possessor of the most withering “no” on the BBC, marched up to me in the street and started publicly admonishing me I’d not only apologise profusely, I’d probably also give him my wallet, the keys to my house and my firstborn, if I had one.

People might do what Paxman says, but that’s because he’s, well, Jeremy Paxman. But the truth for most of us is that confronting litter louts is an exhausting, demeaning, and occasionally dangerous business. That day on my street, I decided I’d had enough. When the match was over I strode out of my gate and, in front of ten grumpy and I daresay not entirely sober football fans (this particular football team not having played their best ever game that day) admonished the driver of the van for dumping a load of litter outside my front door.

His response was unpleasant, and not worth printing, except to say that he somehow believed I should have provided him and his fellow compatriots with a bin, and that “where else were they meant to put it”.

And so off they drove, leaving this pile of rubbish outside my house, while I stomped indoors angry, upset, and a little scared at what had taken place. I left the litter out there for a day, seething every time I had to step over it, but in the end it was too much to bear and I picked it all up and placed it in the public bin that the litter louts had chosen to ignore, just round the corner.

I felt somehow defeated, and I think this is a common emotion when it comes to confronting those who litter our streets. It takes guts – some might even say stupidity – to tackle a complete stranger about their behaviour, particularly in today’s culture of knives and violence. It’s not easy, and we’re not all Jeremy Paxman.

Not long after that litter incident, I joined my local Community Council. One of our initiatives is a regular litter pick-up, where a group of community-minded residents set aside a few hours every so often to give our local streets a deep clean and make our neighbourhood beautiful again.

Picking up after others is far from the perfect solution, but for those of us who aren’t Jeremy Paxman, what’s the alternative?