Rubbish job: Why don’t we just pick up litter?

By Francesca WilliamsBBC News
  • 18 July 2016,
  • From the section England
Does this make you tut and roll your eyes or itch to pick it up and put it in a bin?

Does this make you tut and roll your eyes or itch to pick it up and put it in a bin?

Does this make you tut and roll your eyes or itch to pick it up and put it in a bin?[/caption]

We threaten litter louts with fines and demand councils install extra bins and clean the streets more often. But what if, instead, every person who saw a discarded crisp bag, can or cigarette packet just picked it up? Would that be the end of the world?

American writer and humorist David Sedaris admits to being “obsessed” with picking up rubbish – sometimes for whole afternoons at a time.

He does it so much the council in Horsham, West Sussex, where he now lives, has named a refuse truck after him.

“People will pull their children close when I pass,” he laughs.

His litter-picking exploits make entertaining radio and, in January last year, led to him being invited before a parliamentary select committee to give evidence.

“No-one should have to live in a teenager’s bedroom – it’s bad for your spirit,” Sedaris told select committee MPs, a couple of years after taking presenter Clare Balding litter picking

Sedaris told MPs he had once walked past a house with so much rubbish in its front yard he thought it was abandoned.

“So, I pick it up and then this woman comes from behind a hedge and said, ‘What are you doing?’,” he said.

“I said, I’m picking up your rubbish.

“‘Thank God,’ she said, ‘I was going to call the council’.

“I see this all the time – people won’t do anything to help,” he said. “Their attitude is, ‘I didn’t drop it, why would I pick it up?'”

Getting your hands dirty – when would you pick up?


A small and unscientific sampling of people gleaned the insight that the fear a dog may have urinated on the litter was a significant deterrent.

Dirty litter, too, was a less attractive proposition, even for the community minded.

Some admitted to picking up more litter on their own street than others.

The proximity of a bin was also a deciding factor with “I’m not carting around somebody’s rubbish for 300 yards” offered as a consideration.

One litter vigilante used to challenge culprits but he stopped, he says, when he was threatened with violence.

Maybe it is easier to ignore than address – unless something forces you to reconsider your approach. Like a three-year-old, for example.

Matilda Rusby sparked a mass local clean-up in her hometown of North Shields after her mother tweeted pictures of her picking up litter.

People who had walked past the same rubbish were inspired – or embarrassed – into doing something about it themselves.

Matilda Rusby's mother, Frankie, said:

Matilda Rusby’s mother, Frankie, said: “Why should my three-year-old have to do this? If she knows better why don’t others?”

Image copyright Frankie Rusby

If a best-selling, award-winning author and a little girl can pick up other people’s rubbish, why can’t the rest of us?

Former councillor David Hardman has always “gone round picking up litter” wherever he goes, “much to the annoyance” of his family.

He would fill a black bin bag every day, walking his daughter to school. “Everywhere I went I had to wash my hands because I’d picked up something horrible,” he says.

Discovering hand-held litter grabbers “revolutionised” his activities.

In Jesmond, the suburb of Newcastle where he lives, “quite a few people” make concerted efforts to deal with rubbish but some residents, he says, “are completely oblivious to it”.

David Hardman (third right) spends a lot of time organising and taking part in litter picks

David Hardman (third right) spends a lot of time organising and taking part in litter picks

Image copyright David Hardman

Dr Joan Harvey, a chartered psychologist at Newcastle University, believes there is a “group effect” at play here.

“If somebody else starts picking up litter, you’ll start picking up litter – if nobody does and they all walk past it, you’ll walk past it,” she says.

Since 80-90% of us are followers, we need someone to take the lead, she says.

“Once somebody starts to do something, others start to do it.”

According to the “bystander effect” theory, not only are we reluctant to be the first to act but, the greater the number of people not doing something, the more we feel we do not have to either.

Some also say it is the council’s job anyway, though Dr Harvey suggests this “excuse” can be an example of “post hoc attribution”.

We walk past the litter and “look afterwards for reasons why… whether they’re true or not”, she says.

Did the driver of this car rationalise why he or she did not pick up this rubbish?

Did the driver of this car rationalise why he or she did not pick up this rubbish?

In Newcastle’s German twin city of Gelsenkirchen it is generally the other way around, says the German Honorary Consul for the North East and Cumbria.

“In general Germans feel responsible for looking after pathways themselves, not the council,” Jo Chexal says.

“I have seen people in Germany pick up litter which someone has dropped and go up to them and say politely that they think they have dropped something and give it back to them.

“It is about pride in the city and its surroundings and not leaving the responsibility with someone else [or] the council.”

In some parts of Germany official requirement backs up natural inclination, with shops forced to keep their frontages clear and residents required to clean their own streets.

Local authorities and littering


Estimated tonnes of litter dropped annually

  • 4 Grades of cleanliness ranging from A (clean) to D (heavily littered) – councils must make sure areas do not fall below B (small items of rubbish)
  • 1/2 a day Time a council has to clear busy public areas of litter
  • 1-14 days Time a council has to clear moderately used and lightly used areas of litter
  • £50-£80 Current fixed penalty for littering (may rise to £150), though fines can reach £2,500

Mr Hardman has argued unsuccessfully for such rules to be adopted in Newcastle.

“It requires a change of national legislation which there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for,” he says.

But Germany has another trick up its sleeve. There you can still return empty bottles and cans to shops in return for the “pfand”, or deposit.

This incentive to pick up – or not drop – was consigned to UK history when drinks producer Barr announced it would no longer be paying 30p for returned bottles.

Like Matilda Rusby, children were once the answer, at least where bottles were concerned, as the BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley’s tale of youthful bottle collecting shows.

He would turn up at his local Edinburgh newsagent’s with as many empty pop bottles as he could find.

If you have a stash of these in your kitchen it is too late to take them back for the 30p

If you have a stash of these in your kitchen it is too late to take them back for the 30p

Image copyright AG Barr

“The bottles would come from a variety of sources – my dad, neighbours, the park where teenagers used to drink on a Friday and Saturday night,” he said.

Roll forward a few decades and sometimes modern rules make it hard to be a Good Litter Samaritan.

Colin Shadbolt from Faversham in Kent reportedly spent a day picking up litter only to be told he could not leave it at his local tip because it was not his rubbish.

Kent County Council said it “applauded the initiative” but the potential for waste to be hazardous meant it must make sure it was “disposed of in the most appropriate way”.

It advised litter pickers to contact the council beforehand.

And there is another problem.

“There is a limit to how much the council can afford to put into landfill or through its system,” Mr Hardman says.

Once upon a time you would have got a few bob for this lot

Once upon a time you would have got a few bob for this lot

Image copyright Thinkstock

“The more weight it puts through its system, even though a lot of it is recycled, they pay.”

So, if every person in Newcastle suddenly became very community-minded and started picking up every piece of rubbish they saw and put it into the nearest bin, would the council have a problem?

The council would only say it welcomed the “involvement of organised groups in keeping their neighbourhoods tidy”.

There have been efforts over the years to encourage people not to drop litter, though the Keep Britain Tidy campaign to persuade people to Clean for the Queen was not entirely well received.

Why, people asked, should they do what they pay their council to do.

But, as local authorities facing budget cuts make choices between departments and reduce street cleaning budgets by millions, some would argue it is churlish to step over litter and say it is someone else’s job to pick it up.

Who's responsible for this - the council or the dog walkers who don't take their poo bags home?

Who’s responsible for this – the council or the dog walkers who don’t take their poo bags home?

Keep Britain Tidy points out that Clean for the Queen was the first national litter-picking campaign for 10 years.

Chief executive Allison Ogden-Newton said it had “been quite a while, really, since the message about anti-littering has got out there to any audience“.

Maybe we need Dr Harvey’s “group response”, then the solo pickers will not have to worry about being looked at sideways.

David Hardman says he takes “the mick out of” himself for constantly collecting litter because otherwise “people do think you are weird”.

But is that fair? David Sedaris thinks not.

“How is it fair that the person who rips a lottery ticket into 16 pieces and throws it on the ground isn’t crazy, but the guy who picks it up is?”

Rubbish! Litter on motorways and A roads costs taxpayers £5 MILLION-a-YEAR

LITTER discarded on Britain’s motorways and A roads is costing taxpayers nearly £5 million-a-year to clean up, according to new figures.

PUBLISHED: 22:47, Wed, Jul 13, 2016 | UPDATED: 23:01, Wed, Jul 13, 2016

GETTY: Roadside crews are filling an average of 332 sacks of rubbish every day

Roadside crews are filling an average of 332 sacks of rubbish every day from the 4,300 miles of ‘strategic road network’ at an estimated cost of £40 each.

This has added up to 364,000 bags of waste since 2013 at a total cost of £14.5 million.

But Auto Express magazine, which obtained the data from Highways England, says the alarming figures are just the tip of the iceberg.

Highways England is only responsible for motorways and A roads and the total cost is likely to be much higher when minor roads are taken into account.

There is no excuse for tossing out litter

Edmund King

AA president Edmund King OBE told Auto Express: “More than a quarter of drivers think that people throwing rubbish out the window is the most annoying habit in the summer.

“Car litter louts are a needless menace who cost the country millions, spoil our environment and put workers’ lives at risk.

“There is no excuse for tossing out litter. Car occupants should bag it and bin it.”

Highways England published a ‘Litter Strategy’ in January 2014 in a bid to reduce roadside waste.


GETTY: Highways England published a ‘Litter Strategy’ in January 2014 in a bid to reduce roadside waste

But collection rates have actually increased since then, with 139,952 bags filled between 2015 and 2016.

Highways England project manager Michael Hoult commented: “Our contractors collect vast amounts of litter from our roads every year, we’d much rather they spent their time carrying out other essential maintenance work.

“The litter on our roads can cause a hazard to drivers, workers and wildlife, so I’d urge everyone to keep a bag in their car to use for rubbish, and then put it in the bin when they get home.”

How Estonians, the Busy Bees, Pollinated the Whole World

In 2018, millions of volunteers will put on rubber gloves, take their garbage bags, and step out to clean up the world. They are coordinated by a small team originating from Estonia. Seems unreal? Far from it.


It all started in 2007, when four people decided there was too much trash in the natural habitats of Estonia. A country-wide cleanup then took place in 2008, led by Rainer Nõlvak. During one day, 50 000 people came out to clean up 10 000 tons of illegal trash. The team did not have any plans to continue with the cleanup events, but since there was a lot of enthusiasm in the team, a few next events were organised during the upcoming years. The idea of  “One day-one country” has evolved into the Let’s Do It! model.

Eva Truuverk, one of the founders of Let's Do It! movement and the Member of the Board of Let's Do It Foundation

Eva Truuverk, one of the founders of Let’s Do It! movement and the Member of the Board of Let’s Do It Foundation

Can we clean up our country too?

“After the first cleanup event, we put a video up on Youtube with a special and good energy. People around the world started writing to us, asking if they can clean up their countries too. We told them of course!’’ Eva Truuverk remembers. She was one of the people who started the action in the first place.

The most active countries were invited to participate in an inspirational and motivational conference in Tallinn in 2010. As a result, those seven countries organised their cleanup events that year and became true success stories. “The important goal of the Let’s Do It! model is to engage 5% of the population in cleanup events. Slovenia broke all records with 14% and 290 000 volunteers.

“After the huge wave of successful cleanups that year it was clear we are not going to escape the leader position in the movement, so we hired a five-member Let’s Do It! World Cleanup team in 2011,’’ Eva says. The aim was to motivate 100 countries to join the movement by 2012 and clean up their countries following the ‘Estonian model’. “In 2013 we invited the leaders of cleanups to Estonia again, and this time their aim was to engage 5% of the population. Our message was, now we have spread our model, everyone has to use it themselves,’’ Eva says. But the team was asked to continue leading the movement by holding it together.

One day – whole world

For the next few years, a new team was built and the movement held together. Let’s Do It! World also became the accredited partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP considered it the world’s most fastest growing environmental organisation. Eva is surprised. “There are actions like this held around the world. Estonians did not invent cleaning up!”. We have modelled the cleanup and that deserves recognition. “Our goal is a clean world. We wish to implement the keep it clean principle, so that we do not have to clean every year. The aim of most big organisations is to keep cleaning up to keep their jobs.”

By 2014 it was clear it was not enough to just hold together the movement – a joint goal was needed. A helping hand emerged: the leader of TED Conferences, Chris Anderson made a call to Rainer Nõlvak. The TED Advisory Board, consisting of people such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, gave him a task to find 16 organisations that actually make a change with the aim to support them. Let’s Do It! World had to come up with an plan of how to reach their goals with imagining a limitless budget. Eva remembers the awesome time they had. “It’s exciting to imagine your work when there are no budget restraints,” she says. They decided to stick to the model ‘One day- one country’ but expanding it to ‘One day- whole world’. “We wanted to remind people that garbage has to go to the bin, and its not okay to have trash laying around,” Eva says.

For several reasons, they could not introduce their plan to the TED Advisory Board, but the movement had its course of action. A joint world cleanup day had to be taken into the planning phase, and persuade the members of the movement, find leaders in every country and train them, map the world trash, implement the world-wide cleanup day and come up with a plan to keep the planet clean.

First, the date of this ambitious plan was selected. Depending on the hemisphere, it is possible to clean up in autumn or spring, the best months are March, April or September. The cleanup has to be held on a Saturday, and the 8th of September has the smallest number of religious or state holidays in the world. It was decided to implement the cleanup in 2018, because it takes time to plan engaging the whole world, and at least 150 countries. The 113 countries in the movement were introduced the idea to clean up on the same day. They were all up for it.

The first Let's Do It! action was held in Estonia in 2008 when 50 000 people cleaned up the entire country in just five hours

The first Let’s Do It! action was held in Estonia in 2008 when 50 000 people cleaned up the entire country in just five hours

Many leaders, one attitude                                

Right now, the movement is looking actively for leaders who would motivate and persuade politicians and the broader public to organise the cleanup event. Heidi Solba is in charge of headhunting the leaders. “We have the profile of the leader for every country, but it is clear that every country and leader is different, except for one thing – the attitude has to be the same,” says Heidi. She is looking for passion and spark. Another thing is the network, skills and knowledge that helps spread the Let’s Do It! model. Junior Chamber International (JCI) are helping out with finding the leaders and understanding the cultural backgrounds of countries.

The leaders will go through the development programme, communication plan, and trash mapping software. “We have a very high expectation for leaders since the participation of every country depends on them. We wish that the leader would have an ability to think independently and see the resources in their country, use their contact network smartly, engage volunteers, build up a team and engage the broader public.”

After finding and training the leaders, the main focus goes to mapping the trash and subjects related to IT. Communication activities are planned mainly for 2018- spreading the word and also implementing the cleanup. “We want to start cleaning up in Japan at 10AM, then move around the world with the sun. The last place to clean up is Hawaii.”

“We don’t know what is going to happen in 2020, it has to evolve organically. Our plan is for the ‘keep it clean’ principle to take root,” says Eva.

“The problem seems aesthetical on one hand, but we don’t know the global, bigger problems that are caused by trash – shortage of drinking water, diseases… We are seconds away from an ecological catastrophe,’’ Eva says.

The team has had its hardships as well, since all that is worthy is not so easy. “The most difficult thing is to fire a volunteer. It’s impossible! If a person wants to continue, they do it!” Eva says. She advises to end the work relationship as soon as it feels wrong.

“You may think that you have control over the situation but it’s a situation beyond your control, when there is a cleanup going on all over the world. You may control your phone calls or emails. It’s important to let go.’’


The idea of cleaning up an entire country quickly spread around the world and now a massive World Cleanup Day 2018 is in preparation

The idea of cleaning up an entire country quickly spread around the world and now a massive World Cleanup Day 2018 is in preparation

Heidi adds that motivation and power might run out when working very hard day to day, thus its important that there are leaders who will give you the inner motivation to keep going. “It is important not to let spark and energy drown in the work!”

Both of them are sure that since there is so much negativity in the world right now, it is important to find something positive that unites people. “We don’t fight against anyone – but against trash, which is the unhealthy thing for all of us. When people work voluntarily and jointly towards something, it unites us, we understand the necessity of it and the universe supports it. Nothing can go wrong when greed and self-interest are not involved,” Heidi believes.


By Tuuli Elstrok for Director Magazine
Translated and edited by Mari Valgepea