An empty bin perches above a trail of litter Jan. 9 in Kensington, London. While the COVID-19 pandemic has raised personal and indoor hygiene practices, the culture of littering prevails outdoors.
Gutters pierced by plastic bottles. Hedges suffocated by wrappers. Face masks strewn across public parks and urine bottles sickly left at curbs. Whilst the pandemic has alerted us to the importance of personal hygiene, toxic littering continues to infect our neighborhoods.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unshackled a rising tide in plastic usage. From the exceptional demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to rollbacks on single-use plastic bans, the pandemic has derailed the war on waste.
A prime contributor to the surge in plastic waste is the use of disposable masks, gloves, and other PPE. As an endeavor to flatten the epidemic curve, London has made it mandatory by law to wear a face mask on all public transport and in shops.
Precautionary measures and PPE usage have become customary worldwide. According to the BMJ, approximately 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used monthly across the globe. A standard disposable mask, made using a variety of polymer plastics, could take 450 years to decompose.
Alongside PPE-related waste, potentially permanent shifts towards industries that require more single-use plastics, including e-commerce and takeaway food providers, have caused an influx of littering.
With indoor dining closed, people have resorted to take-out food as an alternative. Although restaurants in London are planned to reopen April 12, restaurants that didn’t previously offer takeout dining have discovered its profitability and may very well continue this option.
Additionally, people are using — and discarding — more disposable packaging and utensils when they eat outdoors. Based on empirical evidence, London’s litter culture is perpetuated by these takeaway options, as food remains have become eerily unavoidable throughout public spaces.
Under Part IV of the Environmental Act of 1900, section 87 rules littering a criminal offense, carrying a maximum fine of £2,500. While entrusted with the authority to prosecute people who commit such careless offenses, local authorities and the police are as unlikely to witness these crimes as people are to report them. The lack of concern over being fined has bred a culture where people don’t even bother to search for rubbish bins.
Following the IRA years, the lack of bins in London derives from lingering fears of terrorism, as bins were seen as a risk for hiding bombs. When people often have to walk half a mile before finding an appropriate place to dispose of their rubbish, it is no surprise that negligent people choose to litter. In a city of almost 9 million people, rubbish and recycling bins should be placed at least every 50 meters to make it easier for people to dispose of their waste.
Even if litter is not at the forefront of your mind, I urge you to do the bare minimum and look after your own waste. Even better, think beyond yourself and consider collecting rubbish in your neighborhood and surrounding areas.
Over lockdown, I became so utterly fed up by the litter in my neighborhood that I ordered my own litter picker, which is now always by my front door, ready for my daily exercise. I find nothing more gratifying than looking back on a clean street and encourage others to consider taking charge of their own neighborhoods.
All you need is a recyclable bag and a pair of reusable gloves or a litter picker. If residents are seen collecting rubbish, it could make people think twice about littering. Together, we must reach a consensus that littering is socially unacceptable and do our part in restoring London’s hygiene.