Join the ‘litterati’ and pick up rubbish

Discarded PPE, needed by our NHS, by thoughless public

At this time of year, normally thousands of people are busy planning and carrying out their litter picks for the annual Keep Britain Tidy campaign GB Spring Clean.

It began as a weekend, then one year when snow fell on the relevant weekend they extended it for the rest of the month and haven’t looked back, making it a month-long event each year. 

I know about these because I have not only taken part, but organised some. When I worked for Thames21 – London’s leading waterways charity – as their communications manager, it was an obvious campaign to support. I encouraged my colleagues and their trained volunteer groups four months in advance, when the campaign was launched, to register their regular de-littering of rivers for this campaign. 

I even completed their accredited, highly acclaimed river clean up course courtesy of that GB Spring Clean weekend being extended to a month, by organising a litter pick on the Church Road green between St John’s Church, Redhill and Earlswood Common. “No rivers there!” I hear you cry. Ditches count. As the course leader at the time confirmed: “Ditches need love too!” This year, the GB Spring Clean campaign has been postponed until September 11-27. 

So that’s plenty of time to think about the litter around you on your daily walks, runs or plods, while exercising. Hundreds of thousands of people take part each year.

However, you don’t have to wait until then to become part of the “litterati”, as I am going to define them. It’s a play on words, but we’ll come back to the “literature” meaning.

Runners have long since been encouraged to pick up a few pieces of litter as they run. There is a movement for this, called “plogging”: picking up litter while out jogging. It started as an organised activity in Sweden in 2016. The Angling Trust has an on-going “pick up five” campaign, encouraging anglers on rivers and seas to pick up five pieces of litter whenever they enjoy their leisurely sport.

Now, under Covid-19 lockdown, more people than ever are going out for their designated allowance of exercise around their neighbourhoods, when more often they might have driven somewhere first or gone to the gym. It seems ironic that the population is going back to the basics of walking – and cycling – meaning more people out on paths than since the invention of the steam train when you try to go out for fresh air and exercise. It can be difficult to observe the suggested two metre distance at times.

But now we are going about our business slower, people are noticing the rubbish. Well, more people are noticing the rubbish. That is, caring that it is there but that it shouldn’t be.

Over the years, I have heard people in the past tell me they have bought their own picker and gone out and picked up rubbish. 

Furthermore, I am told by a fellow litter pick enthusiast – with whom I in no way congregated while picking on Earlswood Common – that plenty of people have, for years, gone out voluntarily in several places around their homes to pick up the litter which is – almost literally – on their doorstep. Yet he says when he has congratulated them they have been startled and, in a kind of shock resembling the reaction of the lepers in Ben-Hur, shunned his commendation of their enthusiasm. 

Basically, they feel embarrassed.

It is not they, of course, who have anything to feel embarrassed about. 

With our council’s cleansing teams under pressure and concentrating on collecting our weekly household rubbish, we should not expect the streets to look immaculate. Not that they ever did, or else why would Reigate and Banstead Borough Council leader Mark Brunt (in Merstham) or Earlswood & Whitebushes councillor such as Ruth Ritter take part in or organise regular litter picks in their wards?

The people who should feel ashamed are the people who drop litter – everything from cigarette butts (which contain plastic) to cans, bottles, food packaging and even condom wrappers – and spoil the environment (roads or paths) for everyone else.

Litter has many pathways, including dropped or blown out of bins.  But what got me in particular this week was when I found what the media reports have shortened to PPE – personal protective equipment – discarded in alleys and on the common. 

Apparently this isn’t getting through to the NHS places that need it instantly. Or the care homes. Yet, many members of the public have managed to get hold of some. It’s not yet a household item as it is in China (because of pollution).

Apparently, however, it was also perfectly all right for it to be discarded casually. About 20 metres from a bin. Even though the NHS is struggling to get enough. Even though the gloves could be used for a lot longer, potentially, than recommended within the NHS. Even though the mask could be used multiple times, potentially even washed. Even though you could, for many activities, protect yourself with a decent pair of gardening gloves or mittens – and wash them – rather than by plastic ones.

Some of those who drop the litter no doubt think that “the council should pick it up”. This was an argument I encountered, unprompted, via an email in response to a poster I put up inviting people to join a clean up. I had been allowed to display it in the Plough Inn, off Church Road green, for that first litter pick

Apparently it is perfectly acceptable to casually discard PPE when it is urgently needed by our NHS

Apparently it is perfectly acceptable to casually discard PPE when it is urgently needed by our NHS

After eight of us picked up 12 sacks worth of litter, the obligatory traffic cone (there is always one on a clean up), a wheel hub and various other items, I emailed him the results of the clean up, giving him a 10-strong list of good reasons why we did it, including the kind, unprompted reward from the landlady afterwards of a well earned drink. 

A simple answer to anyone who suggests the council alone should take responsibility is, “How big do you want your council tax to be?” They have cleaning teams out regularly. But they can’t get into every nook and cranny. And they clearly can’t keep up with “demand”. It’s down to us as residents to help keep our neighbourhoods clean, firstly by being responsible and not dropping litter.

So why not, in these times of walks for exercise, pick up some litter as you go? Here’s an idea: if enough people challenged themselves to keep the 30-50 metres outside their homes free of litter, we wouldn’t have hundreds of pieces scattered on Brambletye Park Road and its entrance to the park area, or on Station Approach, or the footpath at the end of Princes Road, past the nursery, between Earlswood and Whitebushes (the East Surrey Hospital roundabout, where the “thank you NHS” banners reside), or on the footpath into Whitebushes estate.

One of the items I found on Earlswood Common was an egg box. Not a cardboard one either, but plastic. We’ll come to that in another blog, but basically lockdown and a slower pace of life – to “wake up and smell the roses” as it were – is a chance for us to rethink what’s important in many ways, for a greener, more pleasant environment.

Meanwhile, my order of Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” has arrived. It’s about a conversation that needs to happen on a wider scale, as one review put it; about the global crisis of environmental disaster – the climate emergency – and how there might be hope. She is “literati”: a well educated person who is interested in literature. Writing it, in her case.

Those people who drop litter ought to read it, while in the meantime we  can all become part of the “litterati”: which I am defining as an army of people who care enough about their surroundings to keep our districts clean by picking up litter and  educating and shaming people into not dropping it in the first place.