Litter costs

An article that I came across this month made me think about what litter and littering cost us. It was written by Sara Ann Swida, a columnist on the Coastal Courier, Georgia. The point she was making was that litter costs us in a multitude of ways, some less obvious than others.

But let’s start with some home truths this side of the Atlantic. It was announced in July that annual costs to local councils of cleaning the streets of England had risen to £858 million for 2008/2009 (from £780 million in 2007/2008). That is simply staggering. Just think of it – £4.3 billion over a 5-year period, just from people dropping stuff. How many schools and hospitals could we build from scratch (or even just maintain properly) with that sort of money ? The Coalition have been asking the public for suggestions as to how we can save money – putting your litter in a bin or taking it home with you has got to be near the top of the list in terms of effort/benefit.

Returning to Sara Ann Swida, she tells us that the equivalent cost for the US is $11.5 billion – that equates to £7.4 billion and is approximately £24 per head of population compared to England’s £17 per head of population. That means either that the US authorities simply invest a lot more in dealing with the litter problem than we do or that Americans are much worse litterers than we are. I’ll leave you to make your mind up on that one……..

But, Sara Ann Swida continues, the cost of litter reaches much more widely than that. Take businesses, for instance. In the US, businesses fork out $9.1 billion (£5.9 billion) for clearing up litter and she muses that this is why products cost so much. On a more obvious level, research shows in the US that 36% of business development officials say that litter impacts a company’s decision to set up shop in a community. Think of the impact that must have on jobs, especially in the poorer areas which tend to be more littered and, of course, more in need of employment opportunities.

Even closer to the bone, US research shows that 93% of home-owners say a littered neighbourhood would decrease their assessment of a house’s value and would influence their decision to purchase a property. 56% of estate agents think that being in a littered area reduces the value of a property by 9% (only 9% ?) and 66% of house valuers say they would reduce a house’s value if it was in a littered area.

These figures go some way to explaining why deprived areas struggle to shake off the deprivation stigma – sure, there are issues in such areas other than litter, but get rid of the litter and you make a solid start to addressing the problem.

Sara Ann Swida goes on to highlight two other aspects that she regards as relevant to the issue of the cost of litter. First, she suggests that litter has an impact on tourism revenues – and not just in holiday resorts. This seems intuitively true, but it would be useful if research could quantify this point. What actual effect, for instance, does litter have on the tourism economy ? Do you know that a place is littered before you decide to go there and so does it put you off at stage of planning your holiday ? Or do you find out only on arrival that a destination is littered and so decide that you won’t stay there as long as you had intended and decide that you won’t go back – spreading the word in the meantime that the place is a grot spot and not worth visiting (and so, perhaps, contributing to the public’s bad impression of the place) ?

And, secondly, the environmental consequences of litter. Sara Ann Swida alludes briefly to the costs here – the costs of restoring damaged ecosystems and polluted waterways, the injuries to wildlife and the human health hazards. Over here, the RSPCA reports that large number of animals are injured or killed by litter every year and charities such as the Marine Conservation Society and Thames21 do fantastic work in clearing up beaches and waterways. Their work may be based in the voluntary sector, but it still costs.

So, when people drop litter there are all sorts of ways in which it costs us financially, let alone non-financial ways. Realisation of this might just make a difference to some of the people who drop litter and who seem oblivious to the very real costs to all of us.

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