South of the River – Takin’ it to the streets

Compass-SouthComment logo 2What would you think if you heard that people in Leeds were throwing away coins and notes on their streets? What if it added up to £12 million?

Last week we heard that the cost of picking up litter in Leeds is £12m a year. This doesn’t include street sweeping or refuse collections. This is the cost of clearing up after we drop our sweet wrapper, half finished can of pop or whatever else because we can’t be bothered to find a bin.

I say ‘we’, but I know I don’t drop litter and I suspect, dear reader, that you don’t either. But collectively we are the citizenry of Leeds, the community and as a whole ‘we’ are dropping £12m worth of litter every year.

Some people, too many people, seem to have decided that litter is not their problem. They expect the council to come round after them and clean up. These are probably the same people that believe in the dog poo fairy.

If money were no object this wouldn’t really matter. Hell, you could view it as a job creation scheme. It would make an interesting sociological study for some academic, but not be noticed in wider society. The trouble is money does matter right now.

The council is facing unprecedented cuts in funding. Services are being stripped back to the core statutory obligations. No frills are affordable, there’s no going the extra mile (except as unpaid overtime). Tough decisions are being made about care for the elderly and education for the young. And we’re throwing away £12m on our streets.

So what is to be done?

I was at last week’s Community Committee workshop and there were some good ideas coming forward, but also more of the same tried and failed methods. Leaflets were suggested, but as someone else said, people don’t read them, they just get put in the recycling with all the fast food flyers. ‘Education is the key’ suggested someone else, but the schools are already doing their bit.

Children know that you take litter home with you if you can’t find a bin. The trouble is that they unlearn this as they grow older and see other young people and adults, their parents even dropping litter. They learn that it’s cool to break the rules and drop litter.

I was in Cross Flatts Park the other week walking my dog. As I passed Park View someone sat in a BMW or Mercedes hurled a fast food carton out of the window and over the fence into the park. Now I’m usually quite easily intimidated. The chap was young and strong and looked like he could handle himself. But there was a fence between us and I’d noticed a friend of mine was outside his house further along the street. Emboldened and frankly just that angry to see such brazen behaviour, I went over and picked up the carton.

“I think you’ve dropped something.” I said holding out the carton. The guy responded immediately, jumping out of the car to apologise and muttering something about feeding the birds (he’d thrown half a hamburger with the carton). I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.

The moral of the tale, I think, isn’t that people think it’s acceptable to drop litter in broad daylight in front of other people. We know people do that. The fact is that at least some of these people know that what they’re doing is wrong and will do the right thing if challenged.

As with most things in life, word of mouth is the most powerful form of communication, ask any advertiser. The solution to our litter problem rests with all of us. We need to set a good example and show some pride. Pick up litter outside our houses, challenge people who drop litter.

I know some of us aren’t confident confronting a stranger, but if we all do it we can turn the tide. Even if we don’t win hearts and minds we can make people embarrassed to be seen littering.

So here’s my suggestion for the Community Committee: could you run some workshops for people to give them the confidence to safely challenge litter bugs.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.