January 17th, 2014
Is all this concern about litter overblown? Does government really need to intervene to reduce levels of litter, or is it just a distraction from more urgent issues? What are the negative effects of litter and how significant are they; and given the range of apparently competing pressures, what is a policymaker to do?
The development of policy by government requires evidence. While there will always be (possibly controversial) exceptions to this rule, for the most part it holds true. Policy-makers need a reasonable grasp of both the problem that they are seeking to tackle, and the likely effects of any interventions that they may undertake.
The case of litter is an interesting one in this regard. Dismissed by some as simply an ‘emotive’ issue focused on a tiny proportion of the overall waste stream, understanding of the range and scale of its negative effects is building fast. In order for government to be able to make informed decisions as to whether and how to take action, enhancing this knowledge is essential.
Throwing money away?
Discussion of impacts of litter is inevitably framed in terms of costs. The most obvious type is the ‘direct cost’, which is the cost to local authorities and other duty bodies of clearing away litter. Beyond these direct costs are what one might term ‘indirect costs’ – i.e. the costs to other stakeholders. While these are less well understood, initial estimates suggest that they are considerable – far outweighing the direct costs.
Research commissioned this year by Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) has begun to explore a number of these indirect cost categories, looking both at costs that are ‘internalised’ within market transactions, and ‘externalities’, for which no market exists. An example of an internalised cost is that arising from having to deal with a puncture caused by broken glass from a littered bottle. An externalised cost, by contrast, could be the sense of ‘welfare loss’ associated with the visual disamenity of a park being strewn with litter.
The ZWS research identified evidence that a littered environment can contribute to poor mental health, increase the likelihood of crime, and reduce property values. Other types of indirect costs identified were associated with road traffic accidents, fires, and vermin. Focusing solely on crime, the annual costs attributable to litter were identified as being up to £22.5 million. For mental health and well-being, the study estimated attributable costs to be of the order of £53 million.
One immediate and important effect of this research has been to raise awareness among stakeholders that they are, indeed, stakeholders. For example, since the publication of the report, NHS Scotland has shown great interest in the mental health effects of litter and is considering how best to engage in the debate. This is an encouraging trend, and if replicated with other stakeholders should facilitate further uncovering of evidence.
How much does litter bug us?
The study also built upon research into local environmental quality undertaken for Defra in 2011. Looking at externalised costs, this report identified the public’s mean willingness to pay (WTP), via an increase in council tax, for a number of improvements in a range of local environmental factors.
Litter was identified in the research as the factor with the most significant effect on local environmental quality, with the highest mean WTP to reduce it. Applying the values from this research to Scotland, an aggregate WTP of between £500 million and £770 million was identified. This can be taken as a broad measure of the disamenity impact, i.e. just how upset people feel about the level of litter in their local neighbourhood. This value arguably incorporates some considerations such as effects of litter on crime and property values, and gives an approximate picture of the ‘size of the prize’ – an indication of the ‘welfare improvement’ that would be associated with successfully tackling litter.
While such evidence is useful, clearly emphasising the scale of dissatisfaction with littered environments, it gives no insight into the differing disamenity impacts associated with specific types of litter. A better understanding of the relative disamenity of litter types should allow for the most cost-effective measures to be prioritised.
It would seem intuitive that the disamenity of an item is related, at least, to both the volume of the item (which affects its visibility), and the material from which the item is made (with the knowledge that different item and material types lead to greater ‘downstream’ impacts than others – think plastic bags and turtles). There is, as yet, no available research on this matter of relative disamenity, although I suspect that existing and proposed levies on single-use carrier bags provide a good example of an item of high disamenity value being tackled in an effective manner.
Hitting the bottles
Beverage containers are another highly visible type of litter. A 2010 study for CPRE on the introduction of a UK-wide deposit-refund system for beverage containers found that the benefits of such a system outweighed the costs once account was taken of the disamenity impact of litter. At the time, prior to the publication of the Defra study cited above, there was an absence of reliable estimates on disamenity, and the values selected were much lower than those more recently identified. On the basis of the revised disamenity figures, the case for deposits looks even stronger.
But still I believe we are far from fully identifying the true extent of the costs associated with littered items. Awareness of the impacts of litter in the marine environment has increased in recent years, and I anticipate that evidence of the types of impact, and calculations of their associated costs will continue to expand. The growing problem of microplastics, and the way in which plastics are entering the food chain undoubtedly gives rise to costs at some point, but as yet there is insufficient evidence to fully understand these impacts.
Left holding the bag
On a recent walk in the Lake District, of the litter that I picked up, crisp packets comprised the greatest number of items. This got me thinking about whether deposit refunds could be applied to such packaging. As crisp packets fold up small, in many ways they would be easier to store and then return than bottles or cans. If reverse vending machines were adapted to accept them, they wouldn’t take up too much space. While currently not recyclable, and composed of less valuable materials than beverage containers, in anticipation of high rates of return of a segregated stream of crisp packets, manufacturers may seek to adapt the composition of the packaging.
Unaccompanied by robust research, such thoughts would just be idle speculation in the course of a pleasant walk. In order to properly investigate the feasibility of such a plan, an understanding would be required of all the associated costs and benefits. Highly visible, containing plastic, and readily transported by wind or water, I would imagine that the disamenity impacts of crisp packets would be quite significant. Given the low material values, would the benefits of such a system outweigh the costs? Government should be taking a close look at the evidence……..