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The true cost of littering

LONDON - APRIL 27:  Rubbish spills out of a wheelly bin as it awaits collection on a street in Westminster, on April 27 2007 in London, England. Many councils in the UK are considering introducting rubbish collections once a fortnight to encourage greater household recycling.  (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images) In the current climate, both the volume of litter dumped on our streets and the costs associated with collecting it are becoming difficult to ignore. The question is: why haven’t councils been given the power to stop it?

Costing the clutter

In December last year, a study commissioned by Keep Britain Tidy found that the direct cost of keeping English streets clean is close to £1bn per year. The figure may seem large, but it’s hardly surprising when, as the Local Government Association (LGA) points out, 80 tonnes of litter was collected from just 18 miles of road in Hertfordshire during an annual clean-up, and 20 tonnes picked up from just 16 miles of Leicestershire’s A42.

Councils have done an excellent job of cutting the costs associated with litter collection, reducing the cost of street cleaning from £858.7m in 2008/9 to £811m in 2013/14, but with central government cuts continuing unabated, these savings aren't likely to be enough.

The costs of collection aren't the only area of concern either. Evidence suggests that litter can be a causal factor in crime, which is estimated to cost up to £328m a year. Additionally, litter dropped on highways can be a serious safety hazard for people and animals alike. Dr. Paul Clark from the Natural History Museum told The Telegraph:

"Once digested, plastic can release toxic chemicals which are then passed through the food chain. These toxic chemicals, in high doses, could harm the health of wildlife.”

As well as the environmental and ethical issues, littering damages the image of local communities and, in extreme cases, can even affect tourism.

Finding a solution

In a recent press release, LGA environment spokesman Cllr Peter Box said: "The litter louts who blight our roads and cost council taxpayers millions in clean-up costs are currently getting away scot free thanks to a legal loophole… We are calling on the Government to urgently give councils the appropriate powers to tackle this issue head-on."

In London, vehicle owners can be fined up to £100 for littering on the spot, but in the rest of the country, police must clearly identify which individual in the vehicle threw the litter before action can be taken. Adjusting this senseless disparity is the minimum that could be done to help solve the problem, and contribute toward the cost of the cleanup.

Former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, promised this very change back in November 2014 alongside a raft of measures such as a government-funded ‘clean up Britain day’, revised guidance for local authorities on their powers to clamp down on littering and a requirement for cigarette companies to contribute toward the cost of collecting discarded butts and packaging: the largest sources of litter in Britain.

The changes never materialised, but Mr. Pickles’ successor and Conservative colleague Greg Clark has an opportunity to bring back these plans and address a serious issue. Doing so will not only improve the quality of life for many communities, but empower local authorities to cover their costs and punish those responsible for them.

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