Research has found that two-thirds of the UK’s waste comes from just 12 companies, with Coca-Cola topping the list. In the absence of effective policies and corporate responsibility, a growing army of garbage collectors is taking action
From solo pickers to community cheerleaders; Dog walkers to power walkers; and from seekers of fresh air to seekers of fresh entertainment, the reasons people collect trash are as varied as the trash they hunt.
For some, measuring your loot by the ton is like an Olympic sport. Others crave the satisfaction of before and after photos. Some are angry, many are happy, some disaffected, others optimistic. But everyone is passionate about making their corner of the world a little more enjoyable.
“I’m a solo picker, but I can spend hours in my favorite place,” writes Claire from Northampton on the Facebook page of the UK Litterpicking Groups, which has 8,000 members. “I feel like a guardian of the galaxy: a small part of it, but it’s up to me to love it.”
Lockdown helped create a fresh flurry of trash pickers. Keep Britain Tidy’s #LitterHeroes Facebook group membership has doubled over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, while the organization has also received an unprecedented number of requests for garbage collection kits.
“There are definitely a lot more people who are collecting garbage now,” says General Manager Allison Ogden-Newton. “We have all spent a lot more time in our neighborhoods in the last year and a half: seeing the same streets and rooms every day and noticing what is around us.”
Those who lead community groups – from the Dorset Devils to the Marlow Wombles – who often hand out pickers, gloves, and even safety vests to middle-class neighbors, have described a “heartwarming” response in recent months.
And things have gotten busier since the lockdown subsided. The lifting of restrictions on people socializing outdoors has resulted in new daily dumps and new types too: disposable face masks, diapers, tissues and handkerchiefs are among the most common finds.
As you might expect, the UK Litterpicking Groups Facebook page attracts some shouting, but also humor. “Let’s all wish the person who dropped this a speedy recovery,” writes Phil from Grangemouth, Scotland after finding a discarded receipt for a six-pack of baked beans and diarrhea tablets.
There is also strong creativity: people who come up with inventive ways to raise awareness of the challenge of littering. On the west coast of Scotland, members of the Ullapool Sea Savers group write “The sea starts here, please don’t litter” around drains to remind people that whatever is thrown into them ends up in the sea.
Many people just clean up because it feels good
Sammie, who hunts trash on the southeast coast, turns her finds into rainbow-clean plastic art and donates 10 percent of the proceeds to Leave No Trace Brighton, a community organization that aims to reduce litter on the city’s beaches.
It’s all admirable stuff, but does it make a difference? Keep Britain Tidy estimates that 2 million pieces of trash are thrown across the country every day – 23 items per second.
Worse than being pointless, could community action actually divert focus from the 12 companies that produce 65 percent of the branded litter that washes up on the UK’s shores, a study by Surfers Against Sewage found? Coca-Cola, Walkers and McDonalds top the list of the most littered brands.
A study found that 12 companies produce 65 percent of the branded litter found on UK shores. Image: Brian Yurasits
David Katz, founder and CEO of The Plastic Bank, a Canadian organization that monetizes plastic waste by turning it into currency to help some of the world’s poorest people, compares the challenge to an overflowing sink: there is no point in mopping the floor, he says, until the tap is turned off. Cleaning a beach, for example, will never turn the page on the garbage, because the next flood will bring more garbage.
But there is evidence that cleanups can make a difference. For starters, each piece removed is one less hazard to the wildlife that encounter it or the people who encounter it.
The longer-term educational effect is stronger. For starters, there’s nothing like filling a trash bag with trash to inspire you to cut down on your single-use plastic usage. When asked why she picks up trash, Liz from Tyne and Wear said: “It shows children and young people that there is an alternative and” [that] I take care “. Many other pickers seem to share the view:” It is not my garbage, but it is my planet “.
Pointless exercise or powerful tool?
A growing number of projects – from the Open Litter Map database to the Planet Patrol app – are asking people to log data about their finds in order to address the challenge at the source. When we better understand the challenge (e.g. what and where to get rid of), it is easier to come up with more targeted solutions – from smarter packaging to policy changes – to help keep the companies pumping out single-use plastic to the Example on account.
But a lot of people clean up simply because it feels good. Public Health England has even advocated garbage collecting as a great way of promoting mental and physical health.
“It’s good for the environment, of course, but we know it’s really good for us as humans too,” added Ogden-Newton of Keep Britain Tidy. She notes that many say engaging has brought a sense of belonging and community pride and making new friends.
“Huge global problems can feel overwhelming, but cleaning up trash is very tangible and rewarding,” she says. “You can literally take a step back and see that you’ve removed so many pockets. It reminds people that it is possible to make a difference. “
Illustrations: Spencer Wilson