The bitter litter truth

Think the public park is in a bad state? Do you know where your trash goes?

The British public’s release into the wild after a year of lockdowns coincided with the hottest day in March on record. On Monday 29 March the pandemic rules were relaxed in England, allowing groups of up to six people from any number of houses, or a group of unlimited size from two households, to meet outside. True to form, the parks filled with boozy revellers; footage shows mass crowds ignoring the social distancing rules still in place. People partied, people fought, and, above all, people littered.

Two parks were closed in Nottingham due to the messes left behind earlier in the week. Community clean-ups were organised, and broadcasters jumped at the chance to pan their cameras left to right, lamenting the rubbish-scapes and decrying uncouth behaviour: oh, the disrespect. “Shame on all these litter louts,” cried a Sheffield Telegraph reader.

Shame, indeed. If we take a macro rather than a quite obviously classist perspective on littering then developed nations are the worst litterbugs in the world. Two billion tonnes of waste are produced every year, with less than 20% recycled. Sensoneo’s 2019 Global Waste Index reports that the problem is not due to population growth, but it is the “levels of consumption within a handful of developed nations, and their gross mismanagement of waste, that have led to this environmental catastrophe.”

The U.K. alone produces over 220 million tonnes of waste every year, with 24% going to landfills. Indeed, households, which account for 12% of the total waste, only recycle 45% of the waste produced. Shockingly, even though the Commercial and Industrial sector produce 41 million tonnes of waste annually, the government accepts that a requisite methodology to calculate the sector’s recycling and recover rate is too complicated. This means the sector cannot be held accountable in any way.

The U.K is the second worst offender in the world for plastic waste, producing 5 million tonnes every year. That’s 99kg per person. The top spot goes to the United States who jettison 105kg per person annually. In contrast, China, despite being the world’s top producer, only uses 15kg per person.

Roughly two-thirds of all plastic waste is exported, with much of it ending up in South East Asia. In 2018, the UK sent 102,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste to Malaysia alone. Strangely, despite claiming that plastic waste is exported to be recycled abroad, a 2017 report found that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.

Exported plastic waste has caused a crisis in developing nations, with a Malaysian politician saying her country was used as a “dump site by developing nations”. The reality is that developed nations, rather than figure out how to deal with their own trash, have found the easiest solution to be dumping it on the doorstep of former colonies.

In fact, offsetting problems onto future generations or other nations seems to be the MO of the “developed” world. We’ve gone so far as to pollute outer space, with at least 23,000 pieces of sizeable space debris orbiting the planet. NASA estimates a further 500,000 pieces of 1–10 cm in size. A Tokyo-based startup is trying to solve the problem by launching a giant magnet into space.

No matter what the Sheffield Telegraph would have you believe, leaving trash behind in a public park is perhaps the most innocuous form of littering—large patches of grass in urban areas typically do not support vibrant ecosystems, and, ultimately, the state will send out its band of cleaners to clear the place of both trash and people: “public” is a euphemism for temporarily available, as the closures of parks have shown.

This week’s front pages screamed of “huge littering issues” across England—meanwhile, the very real dangers of terrible waste management which threaten the entire ecosystem of our planet, remain invisible.

Yes, littering is disgusting. It would have taken a very small effort for this week’s revellers to put their rubbish in a bin, or take it home and maybe even recycle it. Perhaps the bins were full, perhaps they couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps correctly, the local governments decided that until these people learn to show a little respect, they will no longer have access to the parks.

Imagine if Malaysia had the power to lock us out. Would we learn a little respect?

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