Celestial litter

I read a news story the other day that made me think about the types of litter that fall from the sky. My immediate thoughts turned to meteorites (perhaps more detritus than litter), odd bits of spacecraft (particularly in Russia where, traditionally, returning cosmonauts have ejected from their spacecraft and parachuted to earth) and, of course, fireworks – see how many spent rockets you encounter on your travels over the next week or so.

This issue also led me, at last, to find out the answer to a question that has lurked in my subconscious for ages – what happens to the contents when you flush the loo on an aeroplane ? Well, I am pleased to say that whatever you flush ends up in a holding tank on the plane and is emptied when the plane lands. What a relief ! And in some contrast to what happens still on many trains in this country – the loo empties its contents onto the track, hence the plea not to flush while the train is stopped at a station. So, spare a thought for the guys working on the railway tracks – not a fragrant job on occasions, you would imagine.

Anyway, what started all this off in my mind ? Well, it was a story from the Shanghai Daily telling of the problems caused by people littering from high-rise apartment blocks. Think about it – you’re way up off the ground and you’re extremely unlikely to get caught littering from such altitude. The temptation to chuck stuff out of the window is huge.

But a certain Mr Yu placed a notice in his apartment block accusing his higher-altitude neighbours of throwing used condoms onto his balcony. Mr Yu went so far as to nail the offending condoms onto the community notice board – yuck ! His comment was priceless : “I have never had such a disgusting ‘windfall’”, he complained.

We may giggle at this, but littering from a high-rise flat is no laughing matter and is, I think, in many ways similar to littering from a vehicle. Being at altitude or being cocooned in a vehicle causes people to alter their moral standards, not least because they are unlikely to get caught. The property management officials in Shanghai had remarked : “We have staff closely monitoring high-rise windows” to which our reaction is probably “yeah, right….”.

But there is a very serious side to this issue. It’s that littering in general is rightly considered to be a selfish, thoughtless, anti-social act. But, most of the time, it doesn’t directly cause physical harm. However, transfer such behaviour to a place at altitude and you create quite a different situation. There have been at least three such instances in the UK in recent times : a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush where, similar to the Shanghai episode, all sorts of rubbish (including “used condoms and other delights”) was being thrown out of the upper storeys and defiled the garden below; a fridge-freezer and, in separate incidents, the headboard of a bed, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner and a sink were thrown from tower blocks in Glasgow – all luckily avoided hitting anyone; and finally, perhaps seemingly innocuous compared with the previously-mentioned objects, a full black bin-liner was chucked off a high-rise balcony at a tower block in London – it landed on a pram in the garden below and killed the baby in it. What a tragic result of completely thoughtless and entirely unnecessary behaviour.

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