October 5th, 2018

Sound effects: the problem of sonic litter

7 minute read

by Steve Watson


How is a drum and bass banger like a polystyrene takeaway container? Maybe you’re thinking that they’re both most likely encountered at 2am on a Friday night down the town centre. But I’m more concerned about their presence down residential streets during waking hours. In fact, I’m thinking both should be considered forms of environmental pollution.

The Oxford Dictionaries website defines ‘pollution’ as: “the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects.” While we don’t tend to think of sound as a substance, I’d argue that its introduction into the environment can be harmful. Indeed, though the parallels between litter and noise pollution aren’t exact, they have some surprising points of commonality.


Drop zone

Litter is a regrettably familiar feature of modern life. While it has many sources, the most common and obvious one is that people just drop their rubbish in the street.

Few litterers can be wholly ignorant of the inconvenience, or even the well-documented harm, caused by their littering habit – but here’s a brief reminder. Whether collected or not, litter is unlikely to be recycled, so it is a waste of resources. Clearing up litter cost local authorities in England £682 million (£29 per household) in 2016/17. If it escapes into the wider environment, it can pollute soil and water, and can end up in our oceans where it can harm marine life.

Litter also has a number of indirect impacts. A 2008 study from the Government Office for Science concluded that street litter (alongside other linked blights such as abandoned buildings and vandalism) leads to distress and depression. The World Health Organisation has declared mental ill-health to be the single largest cause of disability in the UK, contributing up to 22.8% of the total burden, compared to 15.9% for cancer, and 16.2% for cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, Eunomia’s research has shown that littering is also associated with increased crime and lower house prices.


A spot of bothering

All these negative effects are upsetting enough in themselves, but for me they are compounded by the absolute disregard shown by those who litter. Presumably, our littering neighbours know that littering is bad, but don’t consider it important enough to make them bother holding on to their waste until they pass a bin; or perhaps they give their littering no thought at all. Either way, the problems would be easily avoidable if people weren’t so dully selfish.

This double component, the harm itself added to the frustration that anybody could be so obnoxious as to litter, also applies to what we might call ‘sonic litter’.

This summer, I was enjoying a peaceful, sunny afternoon in Bristol’s Castle Park when a group of three men walked to the top of one of the park’s gentle undulations with a portable sound system and began blaring music that could most generously be described as ‘loud’. For me, the effect was similar to them having dumped the contents of a refuse truck all over the park.

Perhaps sound pollution isn’t taken as seriously as it should be because it is ephemeral and has no clean-up costs. While a littered plastic bag might well outlive everyone reading this article, an obtrusive sound may last only a matter of hours, minutes or seconds. However, it’s real while it lasts, and has very real, negative effects.


Of sound mind

The mental health parallels between regular litter and sonic litter are striking. In 2012, a German study on environmental noise annoyance and mental health in adults found that people “who reported high overall noise annoyance showed more than doubled odds of impaired mental health compared to those who were not annoyed.” More recently, a 2018 Danish study of neighbour and traffic noise also concluded that exposed individuals were more than twice as likely to experience both poor mental health and a high level of perceived stress.

And it’s not just people’s mental health that’s at risk: the World Health Organisation lists the effects of noise as including “sleep disturbance, cardiovascular effects, poorer work and school performance, hearing impairment etc.” calling noise an ‘underestimated threat’. As the above mentioned Guardian article makes clear, high blood pressure, heart attacks and coronary heart disease are thought to result because “noise triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which damages blood vessels over time.”

These impacts shouldn’t be surprising when loud noise has been used as part of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, bordering on torture. Personally, the realisation that my noisy neighbours may be literally slowly killing me only serves to make me more stressed, which is presumably shortening my life even further!

A recent article on noise pollution from the Guardian contained an interesting observation from a spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health: the noises that tend to annoy us most are those from random, human sources – such as noisy neighbours – rather than dependable and impersonal ones – such as road traffic. I think a big part of this is that the former feel like a personal assault, in a way that the latter does not. Road noise is just part of urban life, a kind of ever present tinnitus of the city.


Nerve Pills Poster

Banging the drum for a reduction in noise pollution. Photo: Miami U Libraries (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.


Whether they litter packaging our sound, the easily avoidable, anti-social behaviour of wilful litterers are damaging the physical and mental health of others. Both are born of sheer selfishness, of a sense of entitlement to the environment and disregard for others, of lack of imagination and empathy. Littering is not only harmful to the environment but is also harmful to society because litterers are ignoring their social responsibility to other citizens.


Unsound law

If noise polluters are literally slowing killing people, what can be done about it? Well, as with material litter there is some legislation in place to tackle sonic litter. Those suffering from noise nuisance can report behaviour to their local authority. The law distinguishes between ambient noise pollution, produced by sources like airports and motorways, and noises – whether emitted from premises, or from on the street – that may be a statutory nuisance. Like the litter people drop on the streets, nuisance noise is generally propagated through personal disregard and selfishness, while ambient noise is more the inevitable side effect of commonplace activities.

If the council decides that the noise constitutes a statutory noise nuisance, it is legally obliged to issue a noise abatement notice. If the noisemaker doesn’t comply, the council can issue a fixed penalty notice (FPN) or prosecute – very similar to the measures that can be used against litterers.

However, proving that a statutory nuisance has occurred is a lengthy process: it involves keeping a diary of instances of the nuisance. You also need to track your correspondence with the person responsible for the nuisance so that you can demonstrate you’ve tried to reach a solution yourself. Unless the problem is utterly unbearable, many people will put up with damaging levels of noise rather than pursue the Kafkaesque process to trigger the drastic step of legal action against their noisy neighbours. The only effective remedy on offer feels a bit like using a bulldozer to squash a – still very annoying – fly.

Noise pollution, like litter, is a pervasive but often avoidable problem that slowly erodes people’s mental wellbeing. Like litter, it is often simply accepted as part of the urban environment. And like litter, it has proved difficult to develop effective measures to tackle the problem. The question of what can be done to improve our response to noise pollution is one for a future blog.


Steve Watson



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