• 160,000 Every Second

    Mid Devon Advertiser
    05 August 2016

    Over many years I have joined various litter-picks across our vast constituency. Town centres, river walks, parks and roadside sessions bagging up the careless castoffs of the selfish few. It never ceases to amaze me when I see people casually chuck rubbish into our streets or out of car windows onto our roadside verges. Keep Britain Tidy estimates that over 30 million tons of litter is collected from England’s roads every year – enough to fill four Wembley football stadiums. 60% of people recognise litter as a problem and local authorities pay over a billion pounds a year clearing it up. Littering costs us all – in wasted resources that could be better spent elsewhere – such as supporting our health services or local policing - and in the blight that it brings to the local spaces that we all share.

    One of the worst items of course is the trusty plastic shopping bag. Worldwide 160,000 are issued every second. That’s a whopping 5 trillion a year. One of the particular problems with bags is they blow around – often becoming stuck in trees and other inaccessible places. Many are carried out to sea where they join 8 million tons of plastic entering our oceans every year (the equivalent of dumping a rubbish truck full of plastic into the sea every minute). Plastic is then ingested by marine life and its contaminants come back to us in some of the food we eat.

    So when the government took action to clamp down on plastic bag use by requiring larger retailers (employing more than 250 people) to charge 5p per bag issued I wholeheartedly welcomed the move. The public too apparently approves with a poll conducted for Break the Bag Habit reporting that 70% of us now find it reasonable to charge 5p for all carrier bags regardless of who they are issued by.

    The results of this approach have been extraordinary. Charging can often significantly alter behaviour of course but the effect here is off the scale. In England there has been a drop from 7.64 billion plastic bags issued in 2014 to just 0.6 billion in the six months since the single-use carrier bag charge was introduced in autumn last year. And we are on course for an 85% drop in the use of plastic bags over this year. Fewer bags despoiling our townscapes and countryside and fewer piling up in landfill sites where they take decades to break down.

    Yet more still needs to be done to tackle littering and the government is currently considering larger fines for those engaged in this form of antisocial behaviour. But along with government action perhaps it is our own bravery that needs to be notched up a gear. That personal decision to step forward and challenge those who engage in this thoughtless practice whenever we see it. If our default position is just quiet tolerance then we simply feed the notion that casual littering is acceptable - it isn’t.