This weekend is the Great British Spring Clean. The event is organised by Keep Britain Tidy, and countless schools, community groups, local authorities and universities are getting involved. Indeed, students from the Geography and Environmental Science Societies at the University of Plymouth have arranged a litter pick on Sunday (meeting at 11am at Plymouth railway station – come along and lend a hand!) to clean up the city, or at least make a start at it.
Looking through the various sponsors of the Great British Spring Clean is quite an interesting exercise. We might expect organisations concerned with keeping nice places looking clean – the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Keep Wales Tidy, My Park Scotland, Country Walking, Fields in Trust – but others perhaps raise more of an eyebrow. Why, for example, are the RSPCA and the RSPB involved? What about the Marine Conservation Society? Lidl, Costa, McDonald’s, Greggs and Coca-Cola? The answer is because all of them have rather more to do with litter than they might like.
Litter is entirely caused by people, and we feel a large number of its impacts. There is the obvious point that it makes places look dirty, and this detracts from any health and wellbeing benefits we might derive from visiting otherwise beautiful towns, cities, coastlines and so on. Litter also gives the impression that people aren’t proud of the places they live in, let alone those they visit or pass through. It hints at a selfishness in people who can’t be troubled to take their food wrapper or drinks bottle home or to the nearest bin.
But litter can also be dangerous. Broken glass, needles and other sharps can cause injury and infection, and batteries and electronic devices (seek and you will find) leach toxic liquids and metals and flame retardants. Dog and cat mess just doesn’t mix with children. Indeed, dogs and cats themselves, along with other animals, can also be harmed by litter and this is why we find animal and environmental organisations sponsoring the Great British Spring Clean.
Quite apart from the obvious dangers of broken glass, needles and the like, plastic is also particularly problematic. The United Nations reckons that up to 12.7 million tons of plastic were washed into the sea in 2010 alone, and so-called microplastics – particles of under 5mm in length that originate from arrange of sources including general rubbish that is ground down by waves, and into which the University is at the forefront of global research – are thought to cause harm to marine life and potentially to people who eat that marine life. More than a quarter of all fish sold in markets in California now contain plastic in their guts.