David Sedaris talks to UK MPs about Litter.
January 10, 2015 2:06 AM   Subscribe

On 6 January 2015, MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee took evidence on litter. David Sedaris gave evidence and the whole session is available here. The Guardian has highlights. posted by feelinglistless (43 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:11 AM on January 10, 2015

He's entirely right that the litter problem here is pretty astonishing. Part of our cleaning routine is quite literally picking up and throwing away all of the generally disgusting windblown trash that has accumulated in our front garden. I've never had to deal with that in any other country. Bear in mind we live on a block-long street with four publicly accessible trash bins, so this is all stuff tossed on the ground by people who couldn't be bothered to walk 20 feet to throw it away. People also regularly don't bother to clean up after their dogs.
posted by kyrademon at 2:58 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, you talked me out of visiting.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:16 AM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I liked this comment from the Guardian article: "If poor people drop more litter, then perhaps we should try to reduce poverty."

(I don't often like comments on news sites)

posted by el io at 3:19 AM on January 10, 2015 [13 favorites]

British litter worst in world, David Sedaris tells MPs

I don't really believe that. Worse than India?

Mefites who live there, how bad is it really?
posted by ryanrs at 3:52 AM on January 10, 2015

[British litter worst in world, David Sedaris tells MPs] ... Mefites who live there, how bad is it really?

Well I was born in a litter of seventeen, and if it wasn't for the fact that David Sedaris picked me out of the litter, took me home and let me suckle at his munificent teat until I obtained the age of majority, I would never have survived. That's why I encourage everyone I meet to thoroughly sterilise their parents, lest the number of stray human beings increase to plague proportions and utterly destroy native Britain's glorious native aristocracy. If you've ever seen a Duke, resplendent in his colourful plumage, gambolling majestically down Pall Mall, you will agree with me that these beautiful wild creatures must be protected at all costs against the likes of me and you, disgusting vermin that we are. I mean we probably have fleas and the mange, we are so bloody foul. I shiver just to think about you. And me. But, mostly you.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:05 AM on January 10, 2015 [29 favorites]

I've seen worse in Spain, France, and Italy. Britain does love a moan though.
posted by knapah at 4:20 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I picked an errant plastic bag up and put it in the bin earlier on the strength of this thread. My work here is done.
posted by vbfg at 4:38 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mefites who live there, how bad is it really?

"How bad is the litter problem in Britain?" is kind of a broad question. It's made up of four countries so I'd imagine the problem varies vastly among the many villages, towns and cities therein. In my own corner I can't remember the last time I saw an overflowing bin or a tree with a plastic bag in it, there are ashtrays on top of most of the public bins so the cigarette butt thing isn't as bad as previously, and there are lots of dog waste bins and people are (mostly) good at cleaning up after their dogs. So while I'm not debating that it's bad in some places, and I'll take his word on how bad it is near David Sedaris - for I worship Sedaris - I think calling it a "UK" problem isn't terribly fair.
Thus ends the Belfast despatches.
posted by billiebee at 4:54 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

In London, there is an amazing, silent force of street cleaners doing great work everyday, something that's always impressed me. But I'm often gobsmacked at watching people fling a fag end in the street literally less than a metre from a bin. So, the litter is astonishing, for me, given the resources and infrastructure devoted to reducing it. I'm not massively well-traveled so I can't comment on other countries, but it's far worse than in the antipodes.

I am that person who picks up people's rubbish and hollers after them with forced jollity, "You forgot something!", so take my moans with the suitable amount of salt.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 5:12 AM on January 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Compared to the other ways he could be self-medicating, developing a litter fixation is a remarkably socially productive approach. The world would be a better (or at least cleaner) place if that was more common.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:50 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

The litter problem is bad enough that when Birmingham unveiled it's new central library design people thought it was appropriate that it looked like a pile of discarded mattress springs.
posted by srboisvert at 6:12 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

My entirely unscientific instinct is that litter has got better near where I live in the last few years - though that could just be down to austerity meaning people eat out less. Though there may be local factors - one of the pubs nearby shut for a while so less bottles about.

There was a guy who, for years, would pick letter from the local nature reserve (a road ran though the middle of it... the number of take away cartons, sandwich wrappers, drinks cans etc you would see). When he passed on some other locals took up the challenge.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:25 AM on January 10, 2015

Being the UK, I'm certain there will continue to be a long-running series of terrifying horror film-style public service advertisements on the subject from the country that seems to be the master of such things.
posted by sonascope at 6:26 AM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've lived in the UK, Canada and the US.

The litter was worst - by a long way - where I lived in Canada. I don't think this says anything about Canada vs the UK, but a lot about where I lived specifically. In Canada, I lived in a part of Toronto which was classic car-dominated suburbia, became much poorer, and had the worst city councillor. There was litter everywhere because no one powerful cared about the neighbourhood and it showed.
posted by jb at 6:48 AM on January 10, 2015

Systemic issues, yes, but...I have to admit, few things anger me more than littering. Not littering is literally THE LEAST anyone can do for the environment, and a lot of people from all walks of life still cannot clear that lowest of bars.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:05 AM on January 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

The problem is a combination of selfishness (I need to get rid of this and I don't care where it goes, what it does, who or what it affects) and self-image. The answer is linking a consciousness of what each individual does with their refuse and their personal pride. A person can have a proper pride in themselves, regardless of their economic status. I also think it is a cop-out to blame this on only the poor. I think that littering is a form of self-entitlement that people of all economic classes engage in for different reasons. However, if the problem is related to self-image and the pride that a person takes in themselves, then it should not be surprising if we see it more in economically deprived areas. Some people might even rationalize littering as "sticking it to the man".

Sedaris is also completely wrong when he discusses smokers/cigarette butts. It is still littering, he just excuses it because he has personally done it. In effect, he's making smokers a special class of "acceptable litterer". I completely disagree with that concept.
posted by spock at 7:28 AM on January 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

The councilman that said "if we stop poor people from moving through [the neighborhood] we will have less litter" my mind was blown. Economic class is such an endemic part of British society that they can only see the problem through that lens. Making the litter problem only the problem of "the lower classes" is intellectual littering: It is throwing the problem out the car window and making it somebody else's problem (certainly not my classes' problem). Disgusting.
posted by spock at 7:33 AM on January 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Found it sad that Sedaris blames poor people although I suppose he wanted to ingratiate himself with his hosts.
posted by Nevin at 7:36 AM on January 10, 2015

Sedaris is also completely wrong when he discusses smokers/cigarette butts. It is still littering, he just excuses it because he has personally done it. In effect, he's making smokers a special class of "acceptable litterer"

The video of the panel itself isn't playing for me. Is this where he excuses it? I can't see him doing that in any of the written links. I'm surprised he does because I know in one of his books (which one is escaping me but possibly "When You Are Engulfed In Flames") he mentions being arrested in Thailand for throwing down a cigarette butt. He talks about how he previously hadn't considered it as littering in the same way as dropping some rubbish, and I think he actually says that part of his anti-litter campaign in England was in part a way of making ammends. (Now have to go and listen to some David Sedaris audiobooks for...research. brb)
posted by billiebee at 7:55 AM on January 10, 2015

I know a few people who would absolutely call cigarette butts "acceptable littering." One guy I used to know actually got angry with me when I suggested he not pitch them off his seventh floor balcony; "They just get washed into the lake and then decompose!"
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:57 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sedaris saying that he has "never found opera tickets" in his (commendable) litter pickup and using that as evidence that higher economic classes do not litter is unbelievably lazy thinking. He also said that he has never personally observed people littering. This indicates that (at least some people) are less likely to litter if they think they will be observed. I think it follows that the majority of littering is done during the dark hours. I also think that a good percentage of litter is from things that are consumed in motor vehicles, and one rationalization of tossing things from motor vehicles is that there is no good/designated place in motor vehicles for trash to go (Smoking drivers don't even use their ashtrays for butts any more). It seems to me that if automakers were able to build small trash compactors into their vehicles, we might see less littering. Either that or we would see more nicely compacted cubes of trash along roadsides.
posted by spock at 8:01 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Cigarette butts do not wash into the lake and then decompose. They wash into my garden. All of them, as far as I can tell.
posted by kyrademon at 8:20 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

spock: The councilman that said "if we stop poor people from moving through [the neighborhood] we will have less litter" my mind was blown.

I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that councilman was playing devil's advocate: Rochdale is not a rich part of Britain, he was sarcastically making allusions to the class-based undertones of what Sedaris was saying.
posted by Acey at 8:42 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

> I also think that a good percentage of litter is from things that are consumed in motor vehicles

A friend of mine who used to have a job which required him to constantly drive the width and breadth of Toronto during working hours told me that he would regularly see ditches beside highway interchanges that were half-full of trash. Mostly takeout coffee cups. Mostly Tim Hortons.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:49 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Anyway, my take on this discussion, having been brought up in a wealthy part of the country (suburban South England) and now living in a poorer place (the city of Liverpool), is that culture and class is very much the underlying cause, but not for the reasons that maybe the upper classes think. People in Liverpool do drop litter more regularly (and brazenly) than they did where I grew up, but it's more complex than that.

Part of the problem is the "broken windows" theory (that is, people are more likely to litter if they are surrounded by it anyway). But the basis is that poorer areas suffer from people feeling shame rather than pride at where they live. They have bigger problems to worry about than litter, so it doesn't get much attention. They have poorer standards of education, of infrastructure (i.e. public litter bins), and of services (i.e. council rubbish collection). All of these things are social issues. Which areas do you thin consume more cigarettes and fast food and packaged junk? It sure as shit isn't Upper Chilmondley or whatever.

Right now, the North and other deprived areas of Britain have had their budgets decimated. They are more concerned with closing libraries, or any number of other things. They simply do not have the resources to deal with these issues as a priority. From my point of view, as some one who has come from a different background, I don't litter if I can help it. But when you see a street covered in trash, and you can see nowhere to stub out your cigarette, it's easy to just say "fuck it".

For me, though, what's even easier is to look across the river at the oil refinery smoke stacks, or at the fumes pouring from the cars all around, or the endless fields of housing estates, and say, "fuck it." Litter is more visible when all you do is stare at the gutter and shake your head. But if you look up you'll see planes pouring out CO2. If you look at the dock you'll see the carefully collected trash ready for export to China, or wherever is more willing to deal with this stuff. You'll see that everything is trash, properly regarded.

TL;DR: yes, we're systematically trashing the planet, but it's not the poor that are to blame.
posted by Acey at 9:05 AM on January 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sedaris spends most of his time in Brighton and London I would think. Two of the wealthiest places in the UK. I live in Cornwall, which is one of the lowest paid areas of the UK, I can't say I have noticed a problem with littering here (or graffiti, which also seems popular in those two places). In general people in Cornwall seem to be quite socially motivated. So I have three working theories is that littering is the result of wealthier people. One: wealthy people are doing the littering. Two: poorer people are doing the littering in areas where they are being pushed out by the wealthy, perhaps they feel marginalised. Three: It isn't possible to draw any firm conclusions about who is doing the littering based on evidence as nebulous as Sedaris presents, the snobby prick.
posted by biffa at 9:27 AM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thinking on, that little story Sedaris tells - about the woman who was happy to have him clean up her front garden but didn't want the full bag of rubbish at the end of her drive - is an excellent metaphor for what we do as a society. We don't want to see the litter on our streets, but nor do we want it left at the end of the drive. We want it buried in a hole somewhere far away, swept under the rug, so we can go on producing and consuming guiltlessly.

It's only natural that seeing the evidence of our throwaway existence all around should make us balk and lash out at some convenient scapegoat rather than face the reality of the fake plastic world we've manufactured. Of course, that doesn't make it any less depressing.
posted by Acey at 9:45 AM on January 10, 2015

From the Guardian article:

He recommended that litterers be given heavy on-the-spot fines and be shamed by their peers. “In Massachusetts there are now $10,000 (£6,600) fines for littering. It makes people think twice. Here it is £70. I would get litterers, study them, learn who they listen to to make relentless fun of them in commercials, so they would feel like ‘wow, that’s me in a bad light’. You want to create a system of abject paranoia, so no-one would feel safe.”

Jesus. Fining poor people is not the answer. Banning plastic packaging and replacing it with something recyclable and biodegradable instead is the best I can come up with. But if he would rather "create a system of abject paranoia," then... well, I give up.
posted by Acey at 10:18 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Funny that the photo used in the Guardian article is of an overfull bin, where people have clearly stuffed as much litter in as possible and then started balancing more on top. Almost like they were doing their best not to litter.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

The last time I was in London some years back, many of the rubbish bins had been removed because of IRA bombings and bomb threats, so finding a place to throw trash other than the street wasn't always easy.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:47 AM on January 10, 2015

Regional English cities are filthy in my experience. People just unwrap food and throw the wrappings on the ground. City centers are awash in puke, trash and unmentionables any weekend morning. London isn't too bad tho.

They had to change the McFlurry containers specially for englnd becuae so many hedgehogs were getting stuck in them.
posted by fshgrl at 11:10 AM on January 10, 2015

I visited Los Angeles a few weeks ago for the first time in my life. I marvelled at the almost surgically-sterile sidewalks everywhere I went.

When I returned home from my trip, I did some research as to why those sidewalks were so clean, even in rowdy, nasty neighborhoods.

The answer: California Penal Code 374.4, which imposes some decidedly unfunny and arguably draconian fines for the crime of littering.

Now, I myself am not comfortable with these laws. I wouldn't vote for them here where I live. I share them only as a suggestion, as food for thought.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:19 AM on January 10, 2015

There's more trash inside my house than outside my house, I'll be honest. Maybe things aren't so bad here in Cambridgeshire.
posted by terretu at 11:24 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Worse than India? Mefites who live there, how bad is it really?

Having lived in a suburb of Mumbai and coming from a suburb of London... on an absolute scale, Mumbai is far, far worse. There are no little kids scavenging in piles of rotting rubbish, for one thing.

But in contrast to other European cities, I'd say that yes, London does have a litter problem. As others have commented, many people seem unwilling or unable to do anything with litter except discard it on the pavement, and I regularly have to clear all manner of trash from outside my house. Leaving beer bottles on the front wall seems a particularly popular pastime round here.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 12:11 PM on January 10, 2015

The writer's mind temporarily wrests control from the logical mind: "You want to create a system of abject paranoia, so no-one would feel safe."
posted by user92371 at 12:42 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Man, we had a trash can a few houses down blow over this week in the sub-zero temperatures and very high winds, vomiting Bud Light cans all down the block with a high concentration in my front yard, and I was kind-of like, GRAAARRRRR it is too cold to clean up trash I will have to wait until it warms up tomorrow, and trash is very noticeable because people really don't litter here.

I glanced out the window a little bit later and the teenagers across the street (whose trash it was not) were just getting out of their car home from school, and they and their two friends were picking up as many cans as they could carry and returning them to the bins.

They didn't do the WHOLE block and they only came halfway up into people's yards (socially weird to be poking around people's yards too close to the house), but they picked up a good half of the spill before dashing inside swearing about the cold. Made my cleanup much easier!

But yeah, litter is so socially unacceptable here in US flyover country that teenagers clean it up unprompted!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:14 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Third World garbage dumps are probably cleaner than some areas along the canals in Birmingham.
posted by srboisvert at 6:12 PM on January 10, 2015

jason's_planet: "I visited Los Angeles a few weeks ago for the first time in my life. I marvelled at the almost surgically-sterile sidewalks everywhere I went. "

European visitors to the US often marvel at how clean/free of litter the cities are -- I think a combination of seeing "gritty" US cities on TV/movies where they're played for their danger and drugs and so on, and American attitudes towards litter, where Americans carefully play trashcan jenga to avoid littering. Visitors don't expect Americans will be so diligent about cleaning up trash! But in fact, Americans frequently pick up other people's trash because littering is so anti-social here. I've never met anyone who got ticketed for littering, but lots of people will rebuke their friends for littering.

The thing I could not get over in Western Europe was how nobody bussed their own tray in places like McDonalds. They just left the trash on the table! It was shocking to me.

(Also, cigarette butts, being a nightshade, want to give your tomatoes and potatoes and eggplants "tobacco mosaic virus" so DON'T THROW YOUR BUTTS ON THE GROUND it is bad for plants. Also a 2 cm butt has enough nicotine to poison a toddler (sometimes even TO DEATH) and toddlers put everything in their mouths so if you smoke on playgrounds and throw your butts on the ground you LITERALLY DESERVE TO BE SMACKED (LOCAL TEENAGERS HIDING YOUR SMOKING FROM YOUR PARENTS).)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:05 PM on January 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

"Trashcan jenga" is the most exciting new phrase I've heard in months. Going to have to find excuses to use it now. And perhaps challenge passers-by to a real game when I next encounter it.

Of all the lessons I learned as a spoiled American kid traveling in rural Latin America, the most surprising was: caring about liter is a specific choice, and caring about liter more than the hundreds of other obvious problems that plague our world is a choice made by selfish, aesthetically-obsessed assholes with no sense of perspective.

As much as I love listening to Sedaris when he's having a go at his own people, his statements here only confirm that conclusion. Cripes, what a jerk.

Lately, I've been working hard to take up littering whenever I find myself in a town where nobody who's anybody walks and bins are miles apart. Residents who refuse to pay for basic public utilities deserve to pick trash from their rose bushes, if you ask me. But, not littering is a surprisingly hard habit to break, even when it results in sticky pockets.

Given a choice between supermarket billboards, and supermarket bags on the sidewalk, I'll take the bags. At least they blow around in the wind and make neat patterns. And, unlike billboards, used bags have gotta go somewhere. Might as well be in plain view, constantly reminding us of our relationship to the physical world.
posted by eotvos at 12:52 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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