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Josh Brooks | The answer to the litter problem is simple: stop littering

January 20, 2014 5 Comments » Print Print

There is plenty of great work going on to tackle the litter problem, but is it the packaging supply chain’s problem? Josh Brooks looked for the answers at last week’s Foodservice Packaging Association Litter Summit

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Do you drop litter? If your answer is ‘yes’, then you’re in the majority – according to figures from Keep Britain Tidy that were shared at last week’s Foodservice Packaging Association Litter Summit, some 62% of adults in England are litterbugs.

Litter is, indeed, a huge problem; cleaning it up costs local authorities around £1bn a year, Keep Britain Tidy estimates, while in London alone the cost is estimated to be around £100m.

Given that the Foodservice Packaging Association hosted the event, you may be forgiven for thinking that packaging is a big part of the litter problem. After all, think of litter and sweets wrappers, fast-food packs and plastic bags are likely to come to mind.

Yet, Jane Bickerstaffe of Incpen told the 150 or so delegates in Nottingham last Thursday, packaging accounts for just 1.3% of items of litter. By contrast, chewing gum accounts for almost 78.5%; and cigarette ends for 19.7%. It’s a tiny proportion. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.

Speaking at the event, Phil Barton, the chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy, explained that where there is one piece of litter, people feel comfortable dropping another piece of litter; so a small problem can become a big one very quickly. It’s called the ‘broken window’ effect – if an area has one broken window that is not fixed quickly, it can rapidly lead to a spiral of a worsening local environment. As for litter, quite apart from the mess, high rates of littering in an area, along with graffiti, have been shown to equate to high levels of depression and even obesity among local residents.

All the speakers at last Thursday’s event – including representatives of the likes of McDonald’s, Solo Cup Europe, the waste management business Amey, Maidstone Council and the Greater London Authority – agreed that the problem of litter was a social, rather than a business, problem. Behaviour change among the public is crucial to solving the issue, and this comes down to education as to how not to litter and enforcement of anti-littering laws.

Business can make a difference here; yet it is more likely to be brand owners who can drive change, according to Ian Bland, a campaigner on the issue. He described brand owners as the “undisputed heavyweight champions of the world in behaviour change”. It’s a fair point – after all, that is what their huge marketing operations are expert at doing. Bland’s suggestions was that if the biggest brand owners spent just 5% of their marketing budget on campaigns to push people to ‘do the right thing’ – for instance, to recycle, not to litter, drink less and so on – it would create enough pull to wipe out littering entirely.

Peter Schroeder, environment manager for McDonald’s, backed the point up with a presentation on the many ways in which the fast-food giant combats the litter problem. Every outlet, he told the summit, runs litter patrols covering a 150m radius of their front door; and competitions are held every year to find the best campaigns run by individual outlets or franchise owners. One drive-through outlet in Essex has started printing the registration numbers of its customers’ cars on their receipts, for instance – a clear deterrent to dropping litter. Several speakers pointed to the work of Coca-Cola at festivals and large events to encourage recycling.

Local authorities have a key role to play as well, both with carrot and stick. The Greater London Authority, last week’s conference heard, has been giving out £1,000 grants to help fund projects to clean up areas where litter is a problem. Mini-parks have been created from once unloved and litter-ridden areas of the capital by volunteer programmes that have reinforced a sense of community in those taking part. In Kent, meanwhile, the conference heard how Maidstone Council has toughened up on enforcement of laws surrounding litter, handing out no fewer than 14,000 fines in the last three years for littering offences.

Clearly packaging can take the wrap for litter, at least in the minds of some. And if the packaging supply is part of society – which clearly it is – then it shares the responsibility for solving the problem. But what are packaging suppliers actually expected to do?

Here, the answers were a little less concrete; after all, packaging suppliers rarely have a direct link to the consumers who use their packs and are therefore in a weaker position than their customers to influence customer behaviour.

Peter Schroeder of McDonalds said that he encouraged packaging suppliers to support McDonalds’ litter clean-up events. Perhaps packaging companies should push their clients harder than they have done in the past to get involved. Some organisations – the British Plastics Federation and the Packaging Federation come to mind – have taken part in litter pick-ups in the past. Simple involvement in the campaigning work that is happening already could be a good starting point to getting packaging suppliers on the right side of the argument.

There’s also the packaging technology aspect, of course. At last week’s conference, Andrew Cousins of Amey argued that certain packaging materials were particularly difficult for waste managers to deal with – notably expanded polystyrene. There has been much discussion in the past of ‘designing out waste’ – so could the foodservice packaging industry produce more re-usable coffee cups? Lighter-weight salad bowls? Smaller burger clams? There are surely options to add value to the packaging used by foodservice operators; but I have to admit it’s hard to imagine how a single pack format or technology could significantly change the behaviour of the public.

In the meantime, the message is simple: stop dropping litter, whether it is chewing gum, cigarette butts or packaging. Get out of the majority who do litter and make those who don’t the majority. If this is an issue of changing behaviours, then change your behaviour. That way we can all do our bit to help solve the problem.

We would love to hear about any examples of how packaging companies are already taking on the litter problem. And we would love to know our readers’ thoughts on whether this should be an issue for the packaging supply chain to deal with at all. Leave your comments below – and we’ll report back on your views soon.

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