We need to work together to tackle litter – and the packaging industry needs a unified voice on all areas of the environment, says JANE BICKERSTAFFE of INCPEN…
No right-minded person likes litter. A recent customer survey by a major retailer ranked litter as having the highest negative impact on the environment; and yet litter is not a new problem. It has been a significant issue for years, although many would argue that the problem is getting worse, fuelled by the drive for convenience and on-the-go eating and drinking, as well as the effect of local authorities’ shrinking budgets for street cleaning.
This goes to the nub of the matter. Littering is a behavioural problem, yet all too often people – and legislators – seek to blame the effects rather than the cause. As a result, packaging is often cited as one of the main reasons behind excessive litter. However, no retailer or manufacturer wants to see its brand name in the gutter. And it is important to remember that littering is not just about packaging – our 2014 survey carried out by Keep Britain Tidy found that cigarette ends (29.7%) and chewing gum (24.2%) were as big contributors to litter as packaging (24.2%).
The fact is that littering is not the ‘fault’ of the littered item, wherever it came from. Litter breeds litter – just one item thrown away carelessly makes a place look untidy so that people are inclined to add to it. There is therefore little point in targeting one form of litter, and this is particularly relevant for the packaging sector. There are rumblings in Scotland, for example, about the introduction of a deposit scheme for drinks cans and bottles. However, this only tackles part of the problem and therefore has no effect on any other litter while doing nothing to change attitudes or behaviour.
SUS IT OUT
Increased recycling has also been put forward as a solution. Although recycling is important in the overall drive for greater sustainability, it will not solve the littering problem, since it still requires items to be placed in a bin, something
that litterers are incapable of doing. Another suggestion is the use of biodegradable materials but this seems like a case of ‘if you can’t beat them…’ since such items will still be litter and they will not disappear within a reasonable time.
What is needed is a more co-ordinated approach on a number of levels – education to change attitudes and behaviours; the provision of the right infrastructure and cleaning; and effective law enforcement. Proof that the first two work is aptly demonstrated by the recent Neat Streets campaign in London organised by environmental charity Hubbub, in which INCPEN was involved.
The project was devised to test different approaches to combat littering while encouraging behaviour change. Focused on Villiers Street in Westminster – one of the busiest streets in the capital and with a significant litter problem – the five-month campaign trialled a range of different initiatives using simple but effective measures such as making bins more colourful and visible and a ‘voting butt bin’, which encouraged people to vote with their cigarette butts about topical sporting questions. Most significantly, the successful interventions made it acceptable and fun not to litter. Over the five months of the project there was a reduction in litter of 26%.
Just as important was the collaboration of many different parties in the project. As well as INCPEN, other industry associations and major brands, this also included the local authority, waste contractors, shops, pubs, and businesses.
There are many different anti-litter initiatives but only by working together can we truly tackle the problem. That is why we are delighted that our calls for government to take the lead are now being heeded with the establishment of a new Litter Advisory Committee to help the government produce a Litter Strategy.
Collaboration is also vital for the packaging industry in general. We are a hugely diverse industry, but it is essential that we have a unified voice to demonstrate the many benefits of packaging – particularly at a time when there is still much ill-informed criticism around.
INCPEN is unique in that it represents all parts of the supply chain and can therefore provide an independent and authoritative voice to ensure packaging gets a fair hearing and to promote the many positive initiatives that the industry undertakes. This proactive approach is important if we are to avoid taking an unfair share of the blame for litter, or any other environmental problem. So if you want to help put in a good word for packaging, do join us!