Wednesday 14 January 2015

Litter in yUK

I spend over 2 hours over the weekend watching (entranced) a UK parliamentary committee hearing.  It wasn't exciting in a car-chase sort of way but it was just great because you could see that people were being compelled to change their minds by the quality of the evidence or the quality of the discourse or both. And the subject of all this engagement?
If you haven't got time, you can read the executive summary in the Grauniad, but you'll miss a lot of the to-fro and the interesting nuance. The deal is that an all-party committee of MPs meets in a room in Westminster and asks interested parties to come make submissions and subject themselves to questions from the parliamentarians.  In the panel is the Tory MP for Harrow East, Bob Blackman, whom we've met before being (dis?)respectful of St Nelson of the Mandala. On the other side are representatives of BigTobacco, MacDonalds and the people who make McDonalds' packaging, the Chewing Gum lobby, Our Lady of Incpen and bizarrely David Sedaris the humorist and commentator.  Sedaris is there at his own request because he spends several hours a day, after he's done his quota of writing, picking up trash in the second most ritzy community in England (Horsham in Sussex, as you ask, second after Winchester).  If you do gird up your loins to watch, note that Sedaris, Tobacco and McDs have the first hour and then are rotated off to give the other experts a chair. What I like is that the boogies of Tobacco and Fast Food Megacorp have articulate, well-informed and reasonable spokesfolk who see off the superficial certainties of the MPs and force everyone to think a bit about how to achieve the aim of Less Litter, rather than scapegoating the low-hanging burger-tray and feeling smug.

The California State Legislature, facing a drought crisis far more serious than a bit of litter in the hedgerows, want to fine their citizens if they waste water.  But it turns out that this, in the best conceivable case, can only save 3% of the water they have left - there are bigger fish to fry. As it happens 3% is the amount that fast-food packaging contributes to the litter-stream, so demonising McDs (where the poor people go to eat) is both unfair and minimally productive. It turns out (whoop whoop data alert) fast-food restaurants contribute an average of £9,000 per premises per year in cleaning their local environment, and they don't ignore cigarette-packets or sweet-wrappers as they pick up the stuff their own customers have left on the street.

The quango KBT, Keep Britain Tidy, decided a year ago that they were too clean to talk to Big Tobacco and the Local Government Association also holds this complacent attitude in their Local Government Guidance on Tobacco Control.  Tobacco is profitable and they know they have a crap PR image to counteract, so they're prepared to put money to encourage their clients to tidy up after their fix but nobody will engage with them. And if you think about it, as 80% of the cost of cigarettes goes to the government in tax, you'd excuse The Gaspers from saying "I gave already" and let The Government clean the pavements and provide stubbable litter bins. Obviously you can't look at tobacco solely through litter-tinted spectacles: we probably all want to discourage people, especially the young, from smoking; and pricing, taxing and rules of engagement can impact on this side of the problem. But it was salutary to watch the Tobacco-Guy patiently adopting the high-moral ground. If you'd rather watch Thank You For Smoking (92 minutes) that's fine (and damned funny) too, but over-dramatised.

Chewing gum has a case to answer as well: it costs the UK £50m/yr or 8% of the environmental cleaning budget to remove chewing gum warts from the street (nobody dares look at the underside of the tables in Jolly Fastfood).  But the Wrigley's rep was keen to do her part on behalf of the industry and at least local and national government will talk to them and have a mechanism for accepting their financial and problem-solving contributions.

A solution of hypothecated tax (a tax that is ring-fenced to deal with a particular problem) to which the MPs kept on coming back was roundly dismissed by the panel of interested parties.  If you directly add a tax/levy on something, there is evidence that you may paradoxically increase the amount of it that you find in litter because punters will think "I've paid already to have someone clean this up".  The story is analogous to the famous case where Israeli creches fined parents who were late in picking up their darlings.  It was wholly counter-productive as parents told each other you could pay a little more and get an extra hour at work/shopping.

But the best copy in the committee hearings comes from David Sedaris, who is clearly highly engaged, not to say OCD compulsive, about trash. He cited a Red Bull ad showing a newly stoked consumer casting the empty tin energetically over his shoulder and said that Red Bull and Lucozade [R] were major contributors to his trash-bags.  He held his ground when he was questioned for suggesting that the poor generate more litter and said that Tesco [cheap] bags outnumbered Waitrose [dear] bags by dozens:1 and he'd yet to find old opera tickets or macadamia nut cartons.  He also suggested that the authorities should set up road blocks and fine anyone who was driving a car with a spotless interior. More seriously, he reckoned that a series of ads exposing litterers to ridicule might make them wake up to what they were doing to the environment we all share.

For sure, litter is less important than genocide or human trafficking but it affects us all and desensitises us to worse crimes and public order offenses.  Part of the solution is education and in my educational institution I never see anyone except me picking litter off the floor in the corridors and class-rooms. The goddammed discarded cardboard coffee cups are everywhere and often still half full. Litter-people will have to take care or Conscience Girl will get them.  That's the stick; but there is carrot. Yesterday, I picked up a scrap of paper from the main science corridor at The Institute and found that it was a multiply-folded €5 note. Win! First homeless person I see gets it.

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