Telling litterers to change is a waste of time. Here’s another solution | Ros Coward | Opinion

It’s spring, time to enjoy the countryside and experience the restorative powers of nature. But be warned. These days you are more likely to get depressed and angry at the sight of other people’s rubbish, from casual litter to deliberate fly-tipping.

While littering of the oceans is now at the forefront of public concern, general littering of the countryside and communities is barely on the national radar. Yet the amount of “eyesore” litter, not just plastic, is increasing exponentially on roadsides, in rivers, in public spaces and in the countryside and has a hugely negative impact on people’s lives.

Research shows that litter affects people’s feelings of wellbeing and safety. Littered streets feel abandoned, consequently their inhabitants do too. Litter ruins people’s enjoyment of the countryside and makes open spaces feel like waste grounds. In Kent, where I spend a lot of time, many road verges are strewn with plastic sheets and bags hanging from trees, discarded meal containers and sacks of general rubbish. Recently, working with a volunteer group on a small section of the river Stour in Kent, we barely made a start on the rubbish, but still filled eight large kayaks with traffic cones, shoes, food containers, polystyrene packaging, bottles of all kinds, and a television set.

Animals suffer too. New research on roadside litter by the RSPB and Keep Britain Tidy found more than 8% of bottles and almost 5% of the cans contained remains of some of our rarest native mammals, including shrews, bank voles and wood mice.

Last April the government introduced the Litter Strategy for England – a welcome move. But its main focus is behaviour change, and how to influence “the actions of a selfish minority” who “spoil the countryside” for the rest of us. The government’s solution is the education of schoolchildren and citizens, better information on packaging, and working with business to encourage waste reduction.

Undoubtedly part of the explanation for this rising tide of rubbish is behavioural and generational. Those who have grown up in a disposable society have a tendency to, well, dispose. The sight of an army of litter pickers collecting abandoned tents, clothes and camping equipment after festivals speaks volumes, as do skips of still-functioning equipment left behind by students after term’s end. The British, especially the younger generation, are also Europe’s largest consumers of food and drink on the move, and food containers are the most numerous objects in any roadside litter-pick.

But the problem of litter is also structural, which is why campaigns to change behaviour are flawed. Many of the objects we use now are made from nonbiodegradable material and destined for one use. And everything is wrapped and wrapped again, swathed in unnecessary packaging.

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Rubbish left on a British beach. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Rubbish collection, or lack of it, compounds the problem. Bins for public use are relatively scarce, and litter collection is less frequent as councils simultaneously promote recycling and cut budgets. Uncollected, rubbish blows around, and once an area is strewn with litter it attracts even more. If an area is kept clean, less litter is dropped.

There’s a lot of buck passing – as I found when trying to track down responsibility for some of the worse eyesores on Kent roads. The Highways Agency is responsible for clearing motorways and major A roads, the rest is the responsibility of the district councils, while county councils deal with road maintenance. One spokesman suggested I only noticed more litter because verges had been cut, an absurd suggestion since verge cutting in previous decades never revealed such squalor. Another told me one of the worst roads was only cleared once a year: “It is right that we try to reduce the cost to our residents … particularly as it’s likely that most of the rubbish will have been thrown by people passing through our patch, rather than our own residents.”

In times of austerity it’s not really surprising that agencies eschew responsibilities. Litter clearing is a huge strain on taxes. In 2013 an estimated £1bn was spent nationally. At local level, clearing one bag of roadside rubbish costs £40 because of road closures and safety precautions.

Sherilyn MacGregor from the University of Manchester, who has studied littering in Moss Side, thinks the problem is structural. Litter is at the end of a process that involves production, consumption and disposal, and “this is a chain in which the consumer (and potential litterer) is the weakest link, with the least power”. This is why she thinks the government emphasis on behaviour is ineffectual. Rubbish should be tackled at source and the real solution is a zero-waste society.

In March, 300,000 citizens turned out to take part in litter collections for the Great British Spring Clean. It shows how deeply people care about this blight, but it’s not enough to rely on citizens alone – neither by using the good ones nor educating the bad.

Ros Coward is a professor of journalism at Roehampton University