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In defence of litter

Mindless littering, or mindful rebellion? Anthony Devlin/PA

What propels us to notice when a place is badly littered or surprisingly clean? When abroad, why do we often make comparisons between well-swept cities and badly kept ones?

Of course, there is the banal response that cleaning our city streets is necessary to keep people and traffic moving, so obviously we notice when this has not taken place. But it’s interesting that the positive condition of urban “sustainability”, which includes the vast and expensive complex of refuse collection and disposal, only becomes apparent when it fails. The experience of litter, then, is the experience of negativity - when the positive order on which contemporary life is dependant displays its hidden existence to us.

Perhaps a more important question, then, is why we notice litter when we refuse to see its necessary obverse: the heroic labours of urban cleansing that grease the wheels of life in cities. There are no workers more essential to our world than the refuse collector and the street-sweeper.

Litter and littering are historical phenomena. They were invented in the early twentieth century, and are distinct from previous urban concerns with street-sweeping that can be traced back to every form of urban existence. Medieval parishes in England paid for the removal of dead dogs from the streets, for instance. “Littering”, by contrast, emerged in the years after the Great War. Urban officials had certainly noticed this “other great nuisance of the roads” in the period before 1914, but it was only after 1918 that littering became a subject of popular concern and effective political campaigning.

The emergence of littering was partly a consequence of the changing patterns of an intensified consumerism in the early twentieth century. But this is not really enough to fully grasp its rise. For littering was, at the outset, a class phenomenon. It was presumed that the “Litter Habit” was learnt by working people experiencing the new freedoms of public holidays and the pleasures of consumption, and who were unused to the ways of the countryside or careless to the civic well-being of towns. In a world with an emerging Communist superpower, littering was also a sign of the decay of the rights of property. The “litter bug” did not simply defile landscapes; they also symbolically affronted the basis of capitalism itself by claiming, through careless disposal, the very property on which they stood.

“There is apparently a feeling”, a Times correspondent wrote in 1925, “that a place dedicated to the people (parks) has not really passed into the possession and usufruct [right to enjoy other people’s property] of the people unless they are allowed to do exactly as they please in it… to leave behind them any rubbish which they are too lazy to conceal or take home with them.” One landed MP complained of finding a family out picnicking on his drive about to “leave behind them a mountain of mess”. When asked to take their refuse with them the father of the group replied, “if you can afford a place like this, you can afford to have somebody pick up the mess”. This was not mindless vandalism, this was a very deliberate act of resistance to private property.

Little wonder then, that after the Second World War the Litter Act 1958 sought to abate the “litter nuisance” by applying a £10 fine to offenders. The act brought tangible benefits to the Keep Britain Tidy Group, formed in 1954 by members of the Women’s Institute. It received a £1,500 per annum grant to publicise the new act. By the 1980s it had a £500,000 income from both public and private sources to contribute to this disciplining and control of public behaviour.

And yet as we all know, littering did not go away. While the heroic figure of the father littering in pursuit of the class struggle may be a rarity, there are probably few people who have not carelessly (or perhaps joyously) infringed the law by tossing away an odd cigarette butt or paper cup.

This is the dark, but necessary, underside of noticing litter. Littering is a means to resist the tired domination of petty officialdom over everyday life. We can all experience the momentary freedom of rule-breaking by littering. The irony then is precisely this double-sided character - in litter we recognise and abhor rule-breaking, yet at the same time we also see our own fantasies of liberty. Perhaps this is why littering has never really died out, and why there will always remain a need for those heroes of the cities, the street sweepers.

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