by India Knight in The Sunday Times Magazine, 21 April 2019
We were driving back from the supermarket one evening and the light and the hedgerows and the fields were so beautiful that we went the long way. The sky was pink. The lanes were empty. There were loads of hares. Pheasants were bumbling about and it was glorious, the kind of evening that makes you delighted to be alive; the unfurling of leaves and new growth practically audible. And then, driving through a village, the remnants of someone’s takeaway dinner lobbed from a car window and strewn across the road — cartons, chip wrappers, paper cups, napkins. It looked obscene, like a desecration.
We stopped the car to pick up the rubbish, obviously. But by the time we got home, I was so enraged about it all that I tweeted a picture of the hideous rubbish, wondering what kind of person did this. The replies were many and depressing — tale after tale from dog walkers, bus takers, shoppers and joggers in rural and urban areas who had also witnessed pointless acts of littering. Someone in London said they’d seen a group of teenage girls tear up packaging and drop the pieces on the ground, feet from a bin. Someone else had seen a van driver chuck a bag of rubbish out of the window on a motorway. Another man described how he’d “picked up two bags of rubbish on my evening walks last week”. One man in rural Northumberland noted that he mostly came across the remnants of fast food and protein drinks, and blamed young men.
I was amazed at the passion my post unleashed. But who does this? I can just about get my head around the idea of bored teenagers littering as an act of rebellion; other than that, I’m stumped. Do these drivers not like the smell of the fast food they have just scoffed? Is that why they chuck it with such abandon, and if so do they not know that they smell of it themselves? Or do some people just hate beautiful country lanes and beaches and parks, and want to spoil them? Or is this to do with guilt-eating “bad” food and wanting to forget about it the moment it’s consumed?
There is probably a bit of all of that, but really it goes further. Littering, I think, is to do with the social contract that binds us all together breaking down. Things only tick along in their approximate way because we all try to adhere to the basics: we accept certain duties in the understanding that doing so enables us to live in a functioning society. Obviously, the extent to which you think society should trump the individual depends on where you sit on the political arc, but there are things we all agree on: we queue, we drive on the same side of the road, we try to remain civil, we don’t chuck our fricking dinner out of the car window.
I can’t help wondering whether perhaps these basic rules of the real world are not being honoured because so many people now are living their lives online and feel they are operating in a whole new world where old social norms and aims no longer apply.
The replies to my tweet weren’t all portents of doom, though: I was uplifted by tales of community beach cleaners and villagers organising litter picks. We can all do our bit to combat the plague of rubbish by carrying a spare bag to scoop up any litter we might come across, instead of stepping over it. Councils also have a duty to provide enough bins and fast-food providers must demand that their customers dispose of their rubbish properly. Littering is something we can all do something about. The environment isn’t always about tomorrow. We all live in today.