A thought crossed my mind as I walked through town yesterday: I’ve never knowingly littered. Then I doublechecked my thought: it’s completely wrong. I have.
I used to chew gum: Wrigley’s peppermint to be precise (never spearmint—I’m not a monster). When I was in school, I often enjoyed the satisfaction of spitting the gum out and volleying it into the middle distance. Wherever it should so land, there wouldst I litter.
After nearly hitting a bald man directly on the pate, I graduated to flobbing the offending masticatory latex down kerbside drains. Out of sight, out of mind: still littering.
Since the 1960s, chewing gum hasn’t been biodegradable—it’s made of plastic, for heaven’s sake. Did you know that? I had no idea. Thanks to its durability, local councils are estimated to spend £60m a year on cleaning up our spat out gum.
Littering is one of those antisocial behaviours that make people furious. Usually furious at the person littering; rarely furious at the companies that make the products most thrown away. This is upside down.
Let’s take as an example the planet’s most littered product: cigarettes. 766,571 metric tons of cigarette butts are thrown away every year—that’s the same weight as more than 60,000 double-decker buses or 4,000 blue whales. In the UK, ‘smoking-related litter’ was the most commonly found detritus in the 2018 Litter in England survey, present at 79 percent of sites.
No one knows how long cigarette butts take to biodegrade, but the filters contain cellulose acetate microplastic so it’s going to be a very long time. Those used butts also contain thousands of chemicals with poisonous effects on humans, other mammals, rodents, birds, insects, fish and even plantlife.
Have you ever thought what responsibility cigarette companies are taking for that environmental damage? I hadn’t.
In their superbly titled 2010 study Covering Their Butts, Elizabeth A. Smith and Patricia A. McDaniel from the University of California looked at industry and media data from the past 50 years and concluded:
The tobacco industry has tried and failed to mitigate the impact of cigarette litter.
The researchers also found that tobacco industry anti-littering efforts were motivated by potential restrictions on sales rather than care for the environment:
[T]he industry was concerned about the “potential for anti-smoking groups to seize [the litter] issue to attack cigarettes.” In 1997, Philip Morris (PM) research found that “litter can move ‘neutral’ non-smokers to ‘negative,’” creating more tobacco control supporters.
Indeed, far from being an environmental concern, tobacco bosses sought to take advantage of the ‘litter issue’ in order to ‘undermine clean indoor air laws’. According to Smith and McDaniel:
PM [Philip Morris, the producers of Marlboro cigarettes] explored whether litter, as one of the “dysfunctions of smoking outside,” could be used to convince business owners to maintain or reinstate indoor smoking policies.
Breathtaking. In more ways than one.
But even more audacious was how, not only cigarette companies, but capitalism as a whole has successfully foisted the blame for littering onto the citizen.
Using cigarettes as a common example of standard commercial practice here again, Smith and McDaniel found that the tobacco companies’ priority was that they were ‘not held practically or financially responsible for cigarette litter’:
[T]he industry argues that “the responsibility for proper disposal lies with the user of the product.”
This approach resulted in what Smith and McDaniel call ‘industry-acceptable solutions’, including volunteer clean-ups and the installation of ashtrays. Both these focus on what the community to can do to manage litter, instead of preventing the harm caused by production of the litter in the first place.
In the US, the tobacco industry helps fund the nationwide litter-picking campaign Keep America Beautiful. The campaign was made famous by a 1971 television advert, which featured a tearful indigenous American. The campaign slogan left viewers in no doubt where the blame for litter lies:
People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It.
The campaign was and still is a media triumph, with Smith and McDaniel finding that ‘stories that mentioned [Keep America Beautiful] were also more frequently positive toward the tobacco industry.’
Remember that my use of cigarettes here is only one example. If this is how the tobacco industry is treating our environment and our ‘consumer choices’, then imagine how other companies with a vested interest in our throwaway culture are behaving.
In the UK, we have Keep Britain Tidy, which was set up in the 1950s by the Women’s Institute and is now what they call an independent charity.
Forgive my cynicism, but ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ is a difficult message to swallow from an organisation that is 35 percent funded by the same companies we find most often littering our streets, parks and beaches: Coca-Cola (Britain’s most dumped), Greggs, Costa, McDonalds, KFC—and, yes, you’ve guessed it: my old chum Wrigley’s chewing gum.
Keep Britain Tidy does good work monitoring littering in the UK and organising litter-picking activities—but a lot more good would be done if these companies stopped creating litter. Otherwise, the campaign smells faintly of corporate ‘greenwashing’.
Bearing in mind the positive media that tobacco companies in the US got from supporting Keep America Beautiful, it’s surprising to see Keep Britain Tidy boasting about how in 2015/16 the campaign generated 4,645 news media articles worth £24.2m in advertising. I wonder: advertising for whom?
Not for the first time, the blame for an environmental disaster has shifted from industry to the citizenry. So, next time you’re on a walk, take a look at what litters the ground. Instead of thinking about the person who dropped it, notice the companies who produced it.
This is something you get a lot—god damn little single packets of ketchup. That’s barbeque dip. Someone’s eating barbeque dip from a little plastic coffin. Garbage.
In a walk with Claire Balding, David Sedaris, writer and legendary litter picker, developed his theory that the products most thrown away are the things we’re most ashamed of: takeaway boxes, junk food wrappers, sugary drinks bottles (often filled with piss), cigarette packets, empty vodka bottles, used condoms.
As they pick litter along the verge of a country road in West Sussex, Sedaris speculates what compels people to throw rubbish out of the window of a moving vehicle:
Maybe they’re afraid that they’re doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing, and someone’s going to find evidence of it and they have to get rid of it.
We hide our shame and drive on. Am I ashamed now of my chewing gum littering days? Yes. Was I at the time? Perhaps—but I never would have admitted it. Because we hate talking about our shame, it rarely motivates us to change.
Although I stopped spitting my balls of sticky plastic down street drains a long time before, I didn’t stop chewing gum until 2015.
Why did I stop? I noticed that the behaviour wasn’t doing anything for me. It was a dependency and, like all dependencies, it was a little shameful. So, together with my partner at the time, I quit. I quit the chewing and I quit the littering.
I never once thought to blame Wrigley for either my dependency or for my littering. That piece of gum that I almost volleyed onto that man’s bald pate twenty-five years ago? It’s still there, ground into the asphalt of a railway station car park, perhaps less than ten percent through its centuries-long process of decay.
Even in later years, when I managed to find a bin, there are gobbets of my gum in landfill sites all over the country, decomposing no faster.
I’m not saying we should run a civil disobedience mass littering campaign (although that might get some attention), but we should shift the shame away from the users to the producers, away from dependent citizens disgusted at their consumer choices and towards those who should be disgusted: those most guilty of industrial-scale littering, our junk corporations.
Only when we’ve correctly apportioned the blame, can we hope to change the behaviour of our worst corporate litterbugs.