A lament for litter …

I’ve been meaning to write about the litter that we see in our locality for several years, but everytime I started it got pushed out of the way by another topic.  As a result what started as a gut-reaction to the rubbish pollution we saw on the beach sort of took off.  And I started looking for rubbish – and found it all too easily – everywhere (actually I think know I became a little obsessed with looking for it).  Our cities are full of it. Nobody seems to think twice about leaving empty food and drink packaging around, even in the most iconic places – here captured at the impressive Scotsman Steps, just off Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.Sadly neither does the beauty of Durham’s Peninsula Walk beside the River Wear deter people from ditching their empties …Durham rubbishI suspect everybody is all to well acquainted with this sort of sight – a  casual disposal of something that one shouldn’t have had in the first place – here seen along beside one of the roads into Edinburgh.rubblish driving into EdinburghI could go on and on – but there’s no need, because all of us are just too familiar with these sights.  Come back to Spittal then, and our home beach and local paths and what do we find? Take the tracks leading to the beach …

There is a favoured spot for parked cars on the sea-cliffs above the beach. Such a fine view. Young and old, we regularly see people sitting in their cars here, eating takeaways, smoking (no comment on what exactly they’re smoking).  And then they drive off and leave mess like this – bottles, food packaging, toilet roll, plastic bags.  Just horrible – and I cannot understand it, because what is the problem with putting all this detritus in a plastic bag and driving with it just a couple of hundred yards or so to the council rubbish bin?  Or – how about taking it home with you – it’s not going to foul your car if it’s in a carrier bag?  rubbish during Spittal festivalThat photograph was taken during Spittal’s Seaside Festival in August this year (you can see the marquee and the entertainments behind on the promenade) so perhaps one could excuse festival visitors who don’t know the area well … (I’m making every effort to be charitable here) but actually such a picture is not the exception – it is more or less the rule. Almost every time we walk past this spot, we see sights like this ..Spittal festival rubbishrubbish spoiling the viewrubbish ditched from carsCouncil workers and locals pick up this rubbish here – we have met them and shared their irritation.  Nowadays we arm ourselves with disposable gloves and large plastic bags before we set out from the house.  Disposable gloves, I hear you say?  Well, yes, because another horrible aspect of the rubbish we find ditched in the locality is dog poo bags …dog poo in hedgedog poo chucked asidedog poo and bottle rubbishLook carefully in the lower picture, and you will see several nasty little packages lurking right at the back of the undergrowth.

No words.  There just are no words.  It’s so unpleasant.

I’m going to be charitable with the dog poo glimpsed in this beach picture, because I’m assuming these carefully places little pink packages were waiting for somebody to deal with after their walk …dog poo bagsOf course, all of this – unpleasant as it is – is just a sideline to my real beef: the rubbish on the beach. Here there is rubbish – and rubbish.  There are days when the beach is littered with leaves washed down the neighbouring river Tweed …natural rubbishThey make magnificent compost, so we (and others) can be glimpsed regularly bagging up goodies to take home …collecting rubbish for the compost heapCompost, of course, is the operative word here.  Mostly what we see on our local beach looks more like the coloured pieces here and does not decompose …washed up rubbishOr this …collection of beach rubbishHud's head beach rubbishYup. Bottles and plastic.  And we all now know where this is going. According to an article in the Times newspaper a year ago close to 36 million plastic bottles are used and discarded daily.  Of those almost 16 million are not recycled.  Some will go to landfill, some will just get ditched on beaches and in the countryside. A plastic bottle ditched on the beach will erode, battered by the winds and the waves, until you get a sort of plastic flower like this …fragile plastic bottle flowerThere’s a terrible sadness in that beautiful flower because the missing plastic bottle erodes into smaller and smaller particles of plastic.  Eventually they are small enough to be ingested by fish and other marine life.  Recently I read that microplastics are so pervasive in the environment that you are hard put to find sea-salt that does not contain tiny particles of plastic.

Other materials eventually degrade.  Curiously we found old car parts on the beach below Huds Head. old car partscar part rubbishThere is a sort of sculptural fantasy in these rusty pieces … (coupled with the reassurance that they will eventually degrade – not that I’m recommending the disposal of old cars off the cliffs!)rubbish caught in old car rubbishAll this littering is just awful – it’s ugly, it’s wasteful, and it has terrible consequences as the pelleted plastic story demonstrates. Alas, I cannot but blame my baby boomer generation particularly for its cavalier attitude to the abundant materials we have had from this planet.

The grim news is that there’s no magic way to deal with all this plastic pollution.  Of course we can take heart that this sort of behaviour is no longer acceptable …image from yesteryearAnd it is encouraging to see authorities such as Transport Scotland putting out this message on their electronic noticeboard just over the border at Lamberton: Keep roads tidy and take your litter home ….Road sign about rubbishLet us roundly applaud CalMac Ferries for their strong message seen on the ferry between Largs and Cumbrae earlier this year …Calmac sign about rubbishProbably best of all more and more ordinary folk are joining in beach clearances.  We saw this on the beach at Holy Island. It’s jaw-dropping to see what sort of rubbish they’ve collected! Car wheel hubs!  Garments!Holy Island rubbishI guess too there’s some very small comfort to be taken from the UK Chancellor’s commitment in the Budget earlier this week that he will consult on taxes for throwaway plastic. It’s a very small step in the right direction.

Before I finish this blogpost, I want to acknowledge all those people we see picking up rubbish – on our local beaches as well as in my Instagram feed. (check out #2minutelitterpick). And I also want to apologise for the rant – if you are one of the souls who always picks up your dog’s poo, who loves to sit savouring the view from your car parked above Spittal Beach and never dreams of leaving any rubbish behind – I apologise to you.

As ever artists say it best. I just love the expression of lashing-out rage Pinky MacLure captures in this amazing stained glass lightbox which we saw at the Barony in West Kilbride earlier this summer. She’s called it Landfill Tantrum. She writes:

“The dustmen complained about the used needles poking out of the bin bags. They buried them, along with all the other stuff.We’re overwhelmed by all the buried rubbish, it’s everywhere, it pushes its way back up and it’s killing the ancient birds and beasts.” Pinkie Maclure 'Landfill Tantrum Stained Glass

(Many thanks to Pinkie for giving me permission to reproduce her image here).

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14 thoughts on “A lament for litter …”

  1. Couldn’t agree more, except for blaming baby boomers. I pick up my rubbish and so do my children and grandchildren and my friends who are baby boomers. The people to blame are just people who are very very selfish and very very idle and they come in all shapes, sizes and ages. And some of the worst are those who go to music festivals.


    1. Yes, there is that element to it – I do agree. But it is the baby boomers who have exploited oil and plastic production( as well as other materials from the earth). As a young woman in the 1970s I read the Blueprint for survival but its lessons by and large washed over my generation. And I think that is at the root of the pollution we see today.


  2. I could rant about this for hours! Our local parish employs a litter picker three days a week to keep the village in the condition that the residents expect (according to the parish council). The blindingly obvious question is why do the residents drop so much litter then?
    I didn’t know about the sea salt, though of course it make sense. Listening to David Attenborough describe how seabirds spend hours fetching food for their chicks, only to pop bits of plastic into their mouths was the catalyst I needed to think far more carefully about my use of plastic. I’d love to take all my supermarket purchases out of their packaging and leave the plastic at the till but I’m not that brave. Maybe one day.


    1. That David Attenborough story is chilling – and like the salt a sharp reminder to us all. We see lots of rubbish beside the A1 and I don’t think it is all chucked out of cars – I suspect there is just too much non-compostable rubbish in life and it gets blown around from tips and bins and general carelessness. Perhaps that’s the problem in your village…


      1. That’s a very charitable explanation 🙂 It’s mainly fast food packaging, bottles, cans and household flytipping around the housing estate. On the farm, my main bugbear is those wretched dog poo bags hung on the hedges.


        1. Actually I’m not being charitable – that sounds like quite a different rubbish problem to the more deconstructed rubbish we see along the A1. The truth is there are lots of reasons behind today’s litter – flytipping, casual and lazy ditching of fast food packaging, rubbish on the beach ( and goodness knows where that has come from ) , dog poo – and filled dog poo bags etc etc It’s all foul and all disfigures our landscape and worse. I think we all wish that there was more we could do to change this horrible situation – and feel terribly impotent. Just sad.

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  3. Awful isn’t it. As long as everything comes wrapped in plastic I cannot see anything changing even if we give up plastic bags. Now I find that plastic particles are also in the precious sea salt that I buy.

    Here on the beautiful beaches of Western Australia you will find plastic in all its forms too. On my walks through the Jarrah forest people toss out plastic bottles wherever they please. I pick them up.

    On a personal note I also have polypropylene mesh inside my body you may have read about the global disaster that is occurring with pelvic mesh. I feel that I am now a ticking time bomb. Just another use for cheap plastic that makes millions for the manufacturer and the surgeons who put it there.


    1. Very sad to read all that you say, Lydia. Terrible that you too find plastic on your Australian beaches (for some silly reason I think of them as pristine) and your beloved Jarrah forest. As for your pelvic mesh – I am deeply shocked which is a bit inadequate considering how scary it must be for you. What terribly sad things we do to our beautiful world.


  4. Truly shocking and I share your rage about litter. Recently Steve and I found ourselves walking along a stretch of the A3072. In the absence of a pavement on this busy road, we had to walk on the grass verge, which entailed ploughing our way through a sea of plastic bottles, drinks cans, sandwich boxes – all stuff that had been chucked out of vehicle windows. Presumably it is like this all over the country. In 1990 we visited Galicia in Spain. We were appalled at the sheer volume of litter everywhere (plus the odd whiff of rotting animal carcass). Back then, this was I guess partly due to lack of funds, but it is also a cultural norm in the poorer and disorganised EU countries. In Naples a few years ago, there were mounds of litter in the streets, just so ugly and unhygienic. The locals don’t seem to notice it. (Sorry if I sound anti-EU, which as you know is not the case!) I think the problems you highlight are a reflection of the increased consumption of fast food/bottled drinks, and population probably, but also evidence of globalisation of this horrible habit of abandoning your empties. It has become acceptable here now. People are becoming physically lazier too – just too much effort to bend down and pick it up and carry it to the bin or take it home. I think concerned communities should get together and put up their own signs in hard-hitting language (nothing formal). As for abandoned dog poo bags – decorating the hedgerows here in Shobrooke too – don’t get me started!


    1. Shocking to hear that you have seen evidence of this litter in other European countries, Mandy. What puzzles me most is that when I was working in primary schools in the 1980s, teachers were putting in huge amounts of effort to educate children on care of the environment. What happened?! Did it not sink in at all? I think there is a lot of community action against this now – Anne above describes the efforts her community has gone to deal with litter, and a friend on my IG feed told me about Surfers against Sewage in Cornwall handing out pickers and bags for beach goers to collect rubbish. There are groups on our local beaches (as well as private individuals) who regularly clean the beach. The bigger problems seem to be the micro pellets and existing plastic in the sea. I don’t know how we deal with that – truly heartbreaking.


  5. Yes, to all of this. It is a profound sacrilege of the earth to leave such terrible things all over it and yet it is even worse to be part of a system of industry that brings such things into being in the first place and to be so reliant on the continuing production of plastics. Our rubbish definitely defines this age and it will be our continuing legacy.


    1. It is awful – and worse – from replies to the post I learned it is a world wide problem and people don’t seem to be learning – they are littering more and more!! A recent UK report states beach rubbish is up by 10%!! How can people do it? It makes me despair. I guess like with climate change we just have to persist with our own small efforts – and keep on spreading the word.


  6. Oh, you’ve touched upon such an important topic! I cringe every time I see the litter and it just hurts my eyes to see it on the coast especially… It is as horrible to see garbage in the town, but the sight of empty plastic bottles scattered on the beach makes me sick… I really can’t get the idea how some can just litter among the pristine nature. It is a crime, really.


    1. What has shocked me most, Alina, is reading responses like yours from people all round the world. I had thought it was a little local problem – far from it! It seems to be completely acceptable to a large part of the world’s population to casually ditch their rubbish in our beautiful pristine natural world. Thank goodness that it is being spoken about now loudly and vociferously by another large part of the world’s population – and hopefully we can gradually effect change.


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