Louts with walnut-sized brains leave an ugly problem blowing in the wind

by Scott Douglas

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

01-GullsOn a daily basis recently I’ve witnessed raucous gangs of beady-eyed brutes tossing litter around the streets in a noisy free for all.

They pay little heed to passers-by while gleefully slashing their way through trash bags and leaving the fetid innards strewn across the pavements, roadways and verges.

Seagulls, eh? Edinburgh has more than its fair share of the winged pests and their glossy condition suggests most are doing very nicely, thank you.

Like most problems the seagull conundrum is man made. During the 80s and 90s the urban gull thrived, filling its belly with the contents of plastic refuse sacks which were far from peck-proof.

More recently the rise of covered wheelie bins or communal roadside bins for tenements meant the sight of gutted black bin bags was becoming something of a rarity. So why the sudden reappearance around the city centre, sparking a seabird feeding frenzy?

I have no answers. But when it comes to litter, there’s no point in blaming the local wildlife. Why hate on something with a brain no bigger than a walnut – particularly when you might be sharing a joke, a pint or even a home with the real culprits.

Troll

It turns out half of Scots cheerfully own up to littering, according to a major piece of research commissioned by Zero Waste Scotland.

Ye whit? Everytime I see some troll toss away their lunchtime wrapper, empty a car ashtray on the street or leave a drink can in the gutter it leaves me raging. Now someone tells me 50 per cent of the population is at it?

The bin boffins behind the research reckon littering negatively affects Scotland’s mental health to the tune of £53 million a year. Stewing over the antics of litter louts is bad for your wellbeing.

But this isn’t just a problem for the thin-skinned, the sensitive or the easily offended. It’s an epic and massively costly problem for business.

03-GullsHundreds of millions of pounds is being spent clearing up after the lazy, the thoughtless and the selfish. The same study by academics has shown how the costs of litter keep stacking up – increased crime, reduced property values, wildfires, road accidents, pest control, backed up sewers, flooded streets, rail delays.

Yep, littering or thoughtless waste disposal can be a factor in them all – and that’s before you even try to quantify the knock on costs in a tourist city like Edinburgh.

How many day trippers from England, Europeans on weekend city breaks or long-haul travellers from further afield have had a Festival Fringe or Hogmanay experience soured by unsightly, unwanted and entirely unnecessary garbage?

Epidemic

As Richard Lochhead, Environment Secretary, put it: “Litter costs local authorities, transport providers and other businesses millions to clean up – and we all pay for it.”

Earlier this month (Jul 4) the Scottish Government recognised the scale of the problem and launched a bold attempt tackle a garbage epidemic which has us drowning under 250 million highly visible items of litter each year.

A three month public consultation is underway to inform a new National Litter Strategy which will aim to tie together the strands of education, enforcement and protecting the environment.

Crucially businesses and business group can have their say, since employers will face greater responsibilities to recycle and work harder to educate both staff and customers.

It’s likely the most headline-grabbing part of the consultation will involve the thorny issue of ‘grime and punishment’ and just how harshly litterers should be dealt with? The last thing a creaking justice system needs is a huge influx of new petty offenders.

Yet without a tough and enforceable legislative framework to back it up, I suspect a litter strategy – no matter how much I wish it to be successful – will be doomed to failure.

Just a few short years ago it was unthinkable that smoking would be banned in public places, including pubs. I’m old enough to recall the 1980s when hardly anybody wore a seatbelt – and bristled at the outrageous prospect of being ordered to belt-up.

In both those cases, good intentions, public education and smart advice achieved little in the way of social change. Only muscular legislation effected a tangible, society-wide change in behaviour.

When it comes to litter, the Asian city state of Singapore is often held up as the poster child for clean and welcoming streets. But the hefty fines and public shaming of litter bugs are not to everyone’s taste.

I wonder how they fare on the seagull front?

 

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