From big data to creative ‘binfrastructure’: new ideas for tackling litter

As we’ve previously reported, litter is a big and expensive problem for the UK’s local authorities. A 2015 report by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee put the annual cost of cleaning up litter in England at around £850m. Litter also generates strong emotions. Research by Populus has found that 81% of people are angry and frustrated by the amount of litter lying all over the country.

The CLG committee and the UK government have put forward a range of proposals for tackling litter. But at home and overseas local authorities and the third sector have been looking at inventive ways to keep our streets clean.

 Philadelphia’s data-driven litter index

Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet launched a digital tool to help catalogue the type and location of litter in the city’s neighbourhoods.

The Litter Index provides a full picture of the different types of waste in each of the city’s neighbourhoods, as well as recording the incidence of litter during different weather conditions. Using tablets, city workers record how much waste they’re seeing in their neighbourhoods, take photos and give ratings. The information can then be used to devise a plan for cleaning up litter in different parts of the city, and to pinpoint where resources are needed.

The Philadelphia plan is ambitious, but, as Nic Esposito, the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Director says: “If we’re not changing infrastructure and attitudes, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

 Edinburgh’s intelligent litter bins

New technology has been undergoing tests by the City of Edinburgh Council to measure how full litter bins have become and provide alerts via mobile when they reach capacity.

Sensors positioned inside the bins use ultrasonic technology to measure how full a bin has become. The data is then transmitted to notify the council’s waste management system when a bin needs emptied. The system can also help the council to spot fly tipping when there is sudden spike in the results, and a heat sensor detects fires inside the bin.

During the initial pilot project, collections in areas fitted with the new bins increased by 24% on average, and some collections quadrupled in frequency. The data from the sensors will be used to provide reports on waste generation patterns and can help in planning the most efficient routes for litter bin collections.

Driving litter underground

A growing number of European cities have invested in underground collection units in an effort to make their streets less cluttered.  In the Slovenian capital of Ljulbljana, these units are located around the city centre, with different receptacles for paper, glass, and packaging. In addition, residents of the city have access cards which open receptacles for organic and other specialist waste types, which in turn determines the level of their monthly waste management bill. Separation of waste in this way drives down the cost of managing it, and makes recycling much easier.

In the UK, Cambridge City Council has also taken an interest in subterranean waste units. Steel chutes have been set into the pavement with the aim of replacing thousands of wheelie bins. Residents have corresponding bins for their kitchens, which the city council believes will help create a sustainable living space.

Once completed, the 150-hectare site will have 450 underground recycling and general waste banks across 155 locations.

Thinking outside the bin

Environmental charity Hubbub has examined research and examples from around the world to develop a catalogue of creative and playful ideas for tackling litter effectively. Among the suggestions are:

  • an open-air gallery featuring local people to raise awareness of personal responsibility for waste management;
  • flashmobs to cheer on people who pick up litter and put it in the bin;
  • brightly-coloured bins that draw attention to litter campaigns; and
  • ‘talking bins’ that reward users with belches or coughs.

Hubbub has not confined its efforts to urban waste. Earlier this year, the charity unveiled a campaign targeting countryside litter. A “trashconverter” van toured the Forest of Dean, accepting trash, rather than cash, in exchange for flowers and hot drinks.

Final thoughts

As the Populus survey demonstrates, litter has a negative impact on how people view their own neighbourhoods. At the same time, as the recent Blue Planet 2 programme highlighted, our litter can have terrible effects on the natural environment and on birds and marine life, both in our own coastal waters and in oceans thousands of miles away.

Data, technology and behavioural insights all have important roles to play in tackling the blight of litter. Unusual initiatives, such as those employed in Philadelphia, Edinburgh and Cambridge, as well as Hubbub’s inventive ideas, are worth exploring if they can make an impact on human behaviour, and contribute to the conservation of the natural world.


If you found this article interesting, you might also like to read our previous blogs:

Talking rubbish: the never-ending problem of litter on Britain’s streets

Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management

Coming unstuck? New solutions to tackle discarded gum

In April, the Local Government Association (LGA) declared war on chewing gum:

“Chewing gum is a plague on our pavements. It’s ugly, it’s unsightly and it’s unacceptable.”

Representing more than 370 councils in England and Wales, the LGA called on chewing gum manufacturers for more support in tackling the £60m annual cost of removing discarded gum:

“Chewing gum manufacturers must help more with the growing multi-million pound cost to local communities of removing discarded gum, with 99% of the nation’s main shopping streets now spattered.”

A growing market, a costly problem

Chewing gum may be a modern-day product, but its origins go back a long way. The ancient Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans and Chinese all chewed substances made from the extract of plants and trees. But it was the commercial development of chewing gum in the United States in the 1860s that launched an international market that has continued to grow.

Today, sugar-free gum is marketed as a healthy alternative to confectionery and tobacco, with claims of added benefits, such as fresher breath and whiter teeth. Research in 2015 forecast a 32.6% rise in global chewing gum sales to reach $32.63 billion by 2019. Britain’s chewing gum market is seventh in the world.

All of which means that as more gum is being consumed, more is being discarded on city streets. Research by Keep Britain Tidy has found that 99% of main shopping streets and 64% of all roads and pavements are stained by chewing gum. And once a piece of gum hits the ground, it’s likely to remain there. Gum is made from synthetic plastics that don’t biodegrade, so it can only be addressed by costly removal techniques, such as steam cleaning.

As the LGA has pointed out, councils have no legal obligation to clear up gum once it has been flattened onto the ground. Even so, many councils have mounted gum cleaning operations to make the streets more attractive and improve the environment for residents, visitors and businesses.  But local authorities find themselves under increasing budgetary pressures, and are keen to find alternative solutions.

Taking action

Established in 2009, Gumdrop Ltd is the first company in the world to recycle and process chewing gum into a range of new compounds that can be used in the rubber and plastics industry.

Its eye-catching receptacles (also called Gumdrops), are made from recycled chewing gum, and placed in public places for the collection of gum that would otherwise litter the streets. Once full, Gumdrops and their contents are recycled and processed to make new Gumdrops.

The company has been working with public and private organisations to install their receptacles in railway stations, shopping centres, airports and universities, and has also formed links with chewing gum manufacturers. In partnership with Cardiff Council and Keep Wales Tidy, Gumdrop joined forces with The Wrigley Company Ltd. in 2013 to locate bins across the city centre and key district shopping centres. Siân O’Keefe, Senior Manager, Corporate Affairs at Wrigley, believes the project is a good model for others to follow.

“Encouraging behaviour change is the only long-term and sustainable solution to the problem of littered gum and we are totally committed tackling this issue”.

 Another initiative aiming to promote a gum-free environment is Keep Britain Tidy’s Chewing Gum Action Group. This campaign unites local authorities, central government and the chewing gum industry to encourage responsible disposal of gum. The group’s annual promotion encourages councils to run corresponding local campaigns across the UK. In 2016, the 11 local campaigns saw a 36% average reduction of dropped gum in monitored areas.

Meanwhile, one inventive individual in London is making a virtue of an eyesore by creating miniature works of art, with chewing gum as his canvas.

Final thoughts

Chewing gum waste is not just a problem in the UK. Across the world, authorities are looking at different approaches to deal with it. As of yet, there’s no sign of the UK following the lead of Singapore in banning the sale of chewing gum. Instead, national and local governments are trying to find less authoritarian ways of tackling this modern-day blight.

The progress made by Keep Britain Tidy, Gumdrop and others in the public and private sectors is to be applauded. But, as the LGA has made clear, gum manufacturers are now being expected to do a lot more, both by switching to biodegradable gum and contributing to the cost of clearing it up.

“While awareness campaigns the industry is involved in have some value, they are not enough by themselves. The industry needs to go a lot further, faster, in tackling this issue.”


If you enjoyed this article, you may also find our other blogs on waste management of interest:

Discarding bag habits: England joins Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in charging for carrier bags

By James Carson

Plastic carrier bags have been part of Britain’s retail landscape since their introduction by supermarkets in the 1970s. Dispensed freely and liberally, the bags were originally made of polythene before evolving to the high density polyethylene (HDPE) bags most commonly in use today.

For decades, the plastics industry has been fighting off environmental campaigners’ claims that single-use bags are damaging to the environment and create a significant litter problem. But there have been increasing signs that the carrier bag’s days are numbered.

  • In 2002, the Republic of Ireland became the first country in Europe to introduce a tax on single-use carrier bags
  • In 2007, Italy banned the distribution of non-biodegradable plastic bags
  • In 2014, California became the first US state to prohibit stores from providing single-use plastic bags – subject to a 2016 referendum.

Next month, charges for carrier bags are being introduced in England. The 5p charge will come into force on 5 October, bringing England into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Wales

Wales was the first part of the UK to introduce charges for carrier bags, in 2011. The charge is part of the Welsh Government’s strategy to minimise the proportion of waste going to landfill to 5% by 2025, and eliminating it altogether by 2050.

An evaluation of the impacts of the charge on behaviour and attitudes of consumers found that it had helped to increase own bag use in Wales (from 61% to 82%) and was supported by a majority of the Welsh population. However, no evidence was found that the carrier bag charge led to behavioural spill-over to other waste-related behaviours.

Northern Ireland

The levy on single-use carrier bags was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2013. The charge has been a success story, with a 42.6% annual reduction in 2014 following a previous drop of 71%, after the carrier bag charge was introduced.

In 2013/14, £3.4m of the proceeds from the levy were spent on more than 250 projects delivered by the Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL) Challenge Fund, Natural Heritage grants, Sustainability Innovation Fund and Local Clean-Up Support projects.

Scotland

The Single Use Carrier Bags Charge (Scotland) Regulations came into force in October 2014. Before that, Scotland used more than 800 million new single-use carrier bags every year – the highest usage in the UK. Figures published this summer, however, showed that the number of plastic bags provided by supermarkets in Scotland fell by 147 million last year, despite the charge only being in place for the last 11 weeks of 2014.

Scotland’s environment minister, Richard Lochhead, hailed the results as “astounding”, and said the charge was driving behaviour change to tackle litter and reduce waste. Time will tell whether this impressive start can be maintained. After an initial fall in carrier bag usage during the first year of charging in 2011-12, Wales saw a 5.2% increase in usage during 2014.

England

From October, large shops in England will be required to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags. In 2013, the number of single-use bags from English supermarkets rose from 7.4 billion to just over 7.6 billion. It’s hoped that the forthcoming charge will be instrumental in cutting carbon emissions, and reducing litter.

However, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has described the English regulations as “a complete mess”  The MPs are especially unhappy at the exemptions for smaller retailers, and exclusion of biodegradable bags.

Only retailers with 250 or more full-time employees will have to levy the 5p charge for carrier bags, but trade bodies for smaller retailers say their members want to participate and claim that the exemption will distort competition and cause confusion.

The EAC believes that leaving biodegradable bags out of the scheme could harm the environment by causing litter and damage to wildlife.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on the environment and waste management; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

The single use carrier bag charge (House of Commons Library briefing paper no CBP7241)

Anatomy of a plastic bag

Consumer behavioural study on the use and re-use of carrier bags 2012: final report (Scotland)

The goods, the bag and the ugly (waste control)

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Talking rubbish: the never-ending problem of litter on Britain’s streets

In 1986, Margaret Thatcher launched a campaign to rid Britain of litter. Returning from a visit to Israel, the prime minister contrasted the spotless streets of Jerusalem with the littered pavements of London. Shortly afterwards, she appointed Richard Branson as Britain’s first ‘litter tsar’, who promised to set thousands of young unemployed people to work cleaning up the streets and clearing derelict sites.

Fast forward three decades, and the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee has found that litter remains as big and expensive a problem as ever. The cross-party committee estimates that the annual cost of cleaning up litter in England is around £850m, with chewing gum, smoking materials and fast food litter identified as the most frequently littered items.

Describing the problem as ‘endemic’, the Committee’s chairman, Clive Betts MP, said:

“Litter levels have remained largely static over the last 12 years, with councils spending hundreds of millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money fighting a losing battle.”

The Committee’s proposals for tackling the issue include allocating a portion of any increase in tobacco levies to local councils to help pay for the cost of street cleaning, and legislation compelling fast food shops and restaurants to keep their pavements free from rubbish. Although it stopped short of calling for a ‘chewing gum tax’, the Committee warned that the industry:

“…now has one last chance to put its house in order….by making a greater contribution to the cost of clearing gum and staining and by placing larger anti-littering notices on all its packaging, wrappers and adverts.”

Meanwhile, the government insists it is doing what it can to address the problem. In November, the Telegraph reported that ministers were planning a major push to achieve a cultural change towards dropping litter. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s campaign, the plans were said to include a ‘clean up Britain day’, as well as making it easier for local councils to prosecute drivers throwing rubbish from their vehicles.

Litter can be an emotive issue, and for some the UK government’s proposals don’t go far enough. Giving evidence to the CLG Committee in January, the American writer David Sedaris recommended that litter louts be given heavy on-the-spot fines, noting that:

 “In Massachusetts there are now $10,000 fines for littering. It makes people think twice.”

More controversially, Sedaris, who now lives in West Sussex, suggested that poorer consumers were more likely to drop litter than wealthier shoppers:

 “I don’t see opera tickets in the street. There’s a Waitrose supermarket near where I live [yet] I found just one Waitrose bag last year. There’s also a Metro Tesco store and I find Tesco bags all the time….”

The writer’s observations sparked a debate on litter as a class issue, and whether Britain could learn from Singapore’s zero tolerance approach.

Although the CLG Committee’s report was confined to England, litter is a blight affecting the rest of the UK.  Launching its national litter strategy in 2014, the Scottish Government noted that at least £46 million of public money is spent removing litter and fly-tipping from the environment each year. And earlier this year a survey revealed that there was more litter in Northern Ireland’s streets and parks in 2014 than there has been in a decade.

Meanwhile, back in Israel, the country that Mrs Thatcher once held up as a litter-free model for the UK, things seem to be going downhill. The Tel Aviv daily newspaper Haaretz has observed a growing impression that:

“… almost everywhere in urban areas, and even in open areas. Israel is full of filth, and it looks like the situation is not about to improve anytime soon.”

The paper reported on one campaigner’s efforts to chronicle the problem:

“In one short walk near the Old City walls in Jerusalem, one of the most important tourist sites on earth, he found 641 pieces of trash. The inventory ranged from dog droppings to cigarette butts.”

Tackling litter, it seems, is a worldwide work in progress.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on environmental issues. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Hidden cost of litter spoiling the environment

How clean is England? The local environmental quality survey of England 2013/14

How clean are our streets? All Wales local environment audit and management system report 2012-13 and 2013-14

Time to kick butts (cigarette end litter)