In recent weeks, you’ve probably seen images of woodland trails, parks and areas of natural beauty, strewn with litter, circulating around the internet. Being able to access the great outdoors again has been a huge relief for many. As has the opportunity to reunite with family and friends. Even as pubs and restaurants have been given the go ahead to open, many are opting to meet in the open air, where it feels safer.
Sadly, a small minority of picnickers and tentative holidaymakers are leaving our parks and fields in a less than beautiful state. The problem might seem trivial, but it comes with both a financial and environmental cost. Annually, the government spends £650million of taxpayers’ money on cleaning up litter left in the country's cities and countryside, but it's often more difficult to clean rural areas and woodlands since they're less easily accessible. Earlier this week, Agriland released the results of a survey which found 20 per cent of respondents admitting to leaving litter in countryside areas.
One one level, littering is unpleasant because it’s unsightly. The bright colours of branded carrier bags, crisp packets and cans (designed to stand out) are ever more obtrusive on riverbanks and beaches.
At a deeper level, littering is more than an affront to aesthetics: it makes our environment feel uncared for, denigrated and abused. Now that we’ve realised how valuable nature is to our wellbeing, maltreatment of these spaces is all the more shameful.
Plus, we know how much damage littering can do to local wildlife, who unwittingly try to eat or get caught up in the plastic and metal that humans have left behind. In Port Meadow, on the outskirts of Oxford, a cow died from consuming plastic which had been left behind, with five wild horses and another ten cows being treated for glass cuts to their hooves. Over 1,000 sites managed by The Woodland Trust were left with potentially harmful rubbish over the lockdown period, the organisation reported.
Most of us refrain from dropping litter as a matter of politeness or social responsibility. But perhaps littering would be less of a problem, if instead, we understood clearing up as an act of care.
When we respect our natural surroundings, we feel more connected with them and are more likely to extract the wellbeing benefits associated with spending time in nature, including stress-reduction and emotional clarity. And when the natural environment is consistently maintained, we gain space to exercise, better air quality, and aesthetic enjoyment, as well as building up a psychological relationship with the outdoor spaces we enjoy. Nature has so much to offer us, and if we look after it, it will take care of us too.