Lockdown and litter: lessons to learn

4 Feb 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Feb 2021

Before lockdown the cost of clearing up litter in Northern Ireland was estimated at £29 million.

In 2019 at any one time there were 1.3 million pieces of litter on our streets, 28 tonnes.

A large proportion of this waste was single-use plastics. And an unfortunate consequence of the pandemic has been a reversal of the campaign to eliminate them across the globe.

Online shopping has boomed – and last year Amazon generated enough plastic waste in air pillows to encircle the globe 500 times, according to estimates produced by the environmental charity Oceana.  

It also estimated that up to 22.44 million pounds of Amazon’s plastic packaging waste entered and polluted the world’s freshwater and marine ecosystems in 2019, the equivalent of dumping a delivery van payload of plastic into the oceans every 70 minutes.

The last time that the local charity Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful surveyed littering it found that companies whose products were most often found discarded here were made by Coca Cola, McDonalds, Boost, Lucozade and popular makes of sweets and other fizzy drinks.

There are even more shocking findings in less developed countries where there is less collection and recycling.

The Tearfund charity has calculated that four global drinks giants are responsible for more than half a million tonnes of plastic pollution across six developing countries evert year – enough to cover 83 football pitches per day. They estimate that burning this plastic waste creates the same amount of C02 as two million cars.

Before lockdown the world was waking up to the damage that all this was causing. There was strong growth in re-usable coffee mugs, plates, cutlery and the like. Across the world more and more governments were banning single use plastics.

However the pandemic changed all that. Many retailers, encouraged and supported by the plastics industry, re-introduced single use plastics and banned re-usables on hygiene grounds.

This despite the scientific evidence that suggests there is no heightened risk from reusable grocery bags or drinking vessels (provided they are washed properly).

In December the countryside charity CPRE published a report into littering during lockdown.

It found that littering is now occurring in new ways in different places. The abandonment of town centres has led to a steep fall in urban levels whilst that in parks, beaches and the country-side has rocketed.

There are new forms too – particularly disposable masks and gloves which were so often discarded around schools during the period when they reopened.

And although there was so little litter in our ghost town centres this was offset once takeaway food became available and drive-through restaurants re-opened.

The report states: “Litter left in our countryside, streets, parks and rivers isn’t just an eyesore – it can be extremely harmful to wildlife and nature, and it costs taxpayers millions of pounds in clean-up costs every year. Broken glass bottles and shredded cans are a huge threat to vehicle tyres, people and animals, while plastic bottles generally take hundreds of years to decompose – if at all – and we still don’t really understand the effects of microplastics.”

It got worse. During the first lockdown recycling centres were closed. The result was an upsurge in fly-tipping – whereby householders dumped garden waste, old furniture and other waste in lay-bys, woods and open countryside.

This was matched by what the report calls “careful fly-tipping” whereby people left their rubbish beside full bins, bottle banks and recycling centres.

The resulting mess and the reversals experienced by those campaigning to ban single-use plastics should act as a wake-up call as we emerge from the pandemic.

Local authorities have suffered very badly from the pandemic with the closure of leisure facilities that they operate devastating revenue streams. It seems grossly unfair that they should continue to foot the entire bill for litter picking waste disposal and recycling when there are no consequences for the companies that manufacture single use plastics and other products that go to waste.

Packaging does not just become a problem at the time it is thrown away. Those that produce pollution should be made to pay for it – it is the only way to incentivise change.

Fortunately change is on the way. In 2019 a UK-wide consultation was held on what is known as “Extended Producer Responsibility” for packaging waste. Northern Ireland was involved despite no government being in place at the time.

New legislation is planned for 2023. The basic principle is to ensure that the cost of collecting household waste switches from the taxpayer to producers, therefore making producers responsible and providing them with the incentive to produce less waste and demonstrate a deeper commitment to reducing their environmental impact.

This is likely to be matched – in England at least – by a deposit return system, whereby a deposit, say 20p, is added to the price of all drinks containers which is paid back when they are returned to a machine or shop.

Finally we should be revisiting the plastic bag levy. It has been operating since April 2013 and has resulted in a significant drop in plastic bag usage, and also produced revenues for environmental projects in Northern Ireland.

In 2012 government estimates that 300 million plastic bags were distributed in Northern Ireland. For 2019/20 that number had decreased to 80.5 million (generating £4.4 million).

However the 5p levy has remained in place. In April it is to go up to 10p in England after a public consultation showed overwhelming support for the increase. Mirroring the 10p levy in Northern Ireland should follow.


Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.