Environmental Ponderings No. 12: Litter – the Scourge of the Modern World

Mention the word “litter” in a conversation with a group of people and it is almost guaranteed that everyone present will have a horror story or example of the scourge of litter. Kloof Conservancy chairman, Paolo Candotti, will tell you about his distress at the quantities of litter seen during a weekend walk through the beautiful Krantzkloof Reserve. Local newspapers were full of appalling photographs of Durban harbour and the beaches, covered in layers and layers of littler flushed down the streams and rivers of KwaZulu-Natal after the recent heavy storms.

What is litter? It consists mostly of debris from the “throw-away society” that has characterised the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is mainly the cast offs of manufactured materials and goods such as plastic bottles and containers, cans, plastic and paper wrappings, newspapers, shopping bags, fast food packaging, cigarette packets and butts,  cardboard and rotten or left over food. On a larger scale, urban litter can also include dead animals, old clothing, oil filters, discarded tyres, planks, broken bricks, pieces of concrete, branches and leaves, old mattresses and broken furniture.

Just give a thought to all of this ending up in stormwater drains. It blocks the drains and results in flooding which causes significant damage and costs for repair and restoration. Seventeen years ago, the cost of keeping stormwater drains and waterways clean of this disgusting detritus was over R2 billion (R2,000 million) per year (at an annual inflation rate of 6%, that converts to R5.37 billion in today’s money).

What are the main causes of litter? The main cause is the anti-social behaviour of individuals dropping litter indiscriminately and dumping household wastes illegally. (It is a lazy myth to suggest that dropping litter creates jobs for people to pick it all up.) Inadequate disposal facilities, including insufficient litter and public disposal bins has been cited as another cause, linked to the failure of authorities to enforce effective penalties to act as a deterrent to offenders. It has also been suggested that the failure of street sweeping services to rid pavements and curb sides of litter and rubbish has also reinforced the “acceptability” of litter. Some municipalities have claimed that street sweeping was cut because it was an extravagant and unnecessary “beautification” cost, rather than an important, preventative function for keeping stormwater drains clear.

Litter – Negative Social, Environmental & Economic Impacts

Social & Human Health Impacts

–       Unsightly, smelly and dirty

–       Can promote transmission of disease

–       Tyres and containers can provide mosquito breeding areas

–       Sharp objects can injure

–       Psychological degradation of areas due to littering

–       Environmental Impacts

o   Injure, trap, suffocate, strangle or poison pets and wildlife

o   Contamination of soil and water

o   Blockage of stormwater drains

–       Economic Impacts

o   High cost of clean-up of illegal dumping

o   High cost of extra litter clean up teams

o   Lowering of property prices in affected areas

o   Reduction of tourism in affected areas

There is no simple or straightforward solution to littering. It requires a long term strategy which includes a widespread change in the social behaviour regarding the use and discarding of resources. (Let’s start by not using the word “waste”, but instead regarding it as a resource that we haven’t yet found a use for?) The “consumer society” must go back to a more practical and family based focus upon the resource hierarchy model of  use, reuse, repair, recycle and return.

Municipalities need to revisit their budgets on “waste management” and look at the preventative aspect, as well as the reactive component of waste disposal. In other words, spend money on community education, enhanced street sweeping to protect stormwater drains, strengthen the provision of disposal facilities such as litter bins and public skips, invest in recycling facilities even to the point of cross subsidising costs to make recycling more financially stable and sustainable, and build the brand of “sustainable use and management of resources” instead of the negative reactionary philosophy of “waste disposal”. From a corrective point of view, there needs be a stronger deterrent and penalty for littering and miscreants need to be made to understand their wrong doing. (How about 200 hours of community service picking up litter or cleaning fouled-up rivers?)

People must be proud of their community and environmental space and be committed to keeping it clean and attractive. There needs to be “buy-in” from all sectors of Society and an understanding by all of the financial and non-financial benefits of a clean and healthy environment. Section 24 of the South African Constitution  says that, “…everyone has a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being… “ That won’t just happen, we have to make it happen. So, as a citizen committed to the Constitution,  what are you going to do to maintain that right?

Arend Hoogervorst is an environmental scientist with some 36 years of experience in South Africa in environmental management and sustainable development in local and central government, commerce and industry and private practice.

© Arend Hoogervorst, 2017.