Plastic litter being picked up in a forest by a grab with people standing behind

Over the past few months, I have found myself thinking more and more about place, and what our open and natural spaces are ‘for’. Like many others, the daily lockdown walk with my family helped us to connect more to our local environment. Over the course of the year, we watched the seasons change around us, picked brambles and blaeberries and learned the names of some plants and birds that we would regularly encounter on our travels.

We went from being the unknown faces that local dog walkers would view with suspicion – likely they thought we were breaching the sanctioned ‘daily walk radius’ – to eventually becoming recognised as locals ourselves, with the associated smile or nod.

Gradually, the woods became ours. Every afternoon, the kids and I would set out, rain or shine, and even managed to go a whole week without getting lost.

Then we started to encounter more and more litter, left behind from what I can only presume were clandestine teenage gatherings in the woods. So (and having some sympathy for the teenage need to congregate), we purchased a couple of litter picker grabbers to help clear up the woods during our walks. Recent media campaigns urging the public to ‘#BinYourLitter’, emphasise that this is a national issue, but I don’t think it’s confined to our wilder spaces. I applaud their aims and fully support their campaign – but wonder if there aren’t other underlying issues that need to be considered as well.

With the return to school, our woodland walks also decreased in number as our spare time became taken up with football practice sessions in the park. One day, I watched a crisp packet blow across the nearby play area and remembered the litter pickers in the boot of the car. “Why not?” I thought.

This exercise taught me several things:

  • Picking litter in a public place feels completely different to picking litter up in the isolation of the local woods. I don’t know about you, but when I was at school, picking litter was something that teachers enforced when they felt like you needed some kind of punishment. Despite the (not inconsiderable) intervening years, I still found myself wondering if the other parents would think I was carrying out community service.
  • Apart from the odd glass bottle, none of the litter in the park was biodegradable. There were crisp packets, milkshake bottles, plastic covers for weirdly shaped sweets, bottle tops, yogurt tubes, lolly sticks, sweet packets, biscuit wrappers and much, much more. The vast majority of which was non-recyclable plastic. More on this in the next blog…
  • Every single person that spoke to me said ‘well done’, and then immediately went on to blame the ‘disgraceful teenagers’ or grumbled about the Council not having enough bins or not doing enough to tidy up.

Although it was a long time ago, I do remember being a teenager, and I don’t think I was a particularly responsible one [1]. Whilst not ever condoning the dropping of litter, I would still say that if you are a fully responsible, non-risk-taking teenager, you probably aren’t doing it right. And of course, the litter bugs being a nuisance in this park are probably preteens, the brighter lights of the city attracting the older ones away from the village.

Even as a preteen myself, I had a need to go somewhere and meet others my own age, outwith the gaze of my parents. Where I could act up (a bit) without instantly being told off. Officially, there was nowhere we could go, so, being too young to drive and too cool to cycle, we inevitably congregated in the unlit fringes, the places that the ‘grown ups’ used during the day to walk dogs and commune with nature. By night though, they became our spaces, just as I am sure the local play park is for teenagers now. 

Of course, the majority of young people know the importance of protecting the environment, but at the same time, if they are seen to be congregating in our public parks and in any way not acting like grown ups, almost inevitably someone gives them ‘the look’, they are asked to move on, or they are reported to the police. So, they gather further away from town and at night. The ‘complete freedom’ that this isolation engenders leads to greater numbers congregating, and eventually the group becomes a risk to the area or themselves. 

And as they breathe in particulates from the engines they did not create, and worry about the changes to the climate caused by choices made long before they were born, should we be surprised if some of our young people seem blasé about the consequence of their actions?

In Czech (where the more unpronounceable half of my name comes from), everyone, no matter their background or social class, uses the forests for fruit or mushroom picking, and by far the majority know how to behave when they are there. Trains stop in remote villages, paths are clearly marked and hostelries are spread along the trails. For a long time in Czech, outdoor education and children’s summer camps have been the norm, and it shows.

Meanwhile in Scotland, you need initiative, a car, local knowledge, clothing for all possible weathers and to bring your own (often cheap and disposable) supplies. Is it any wonder some debris is left behind [2]? Or that the few available parking spaces are filled? Or that we struggle to ensure our natural spaces are enjoyed by all groups within society?

And yet, now more than ever, it is important that everyone feels ‘at home’ in our natural spaces. If they don’t, why would they value them, protect them, or want to work in them? 

Hard times are no doubt ahead, and during such times it vital that we ensure everyone can connect with nature and that they know how to do so safely and responsibly. In particular, our young people need support, positive role models, and safe outdoor spaces in which to rebel, develop and grow.

I can’t say that I am (or ever have been) a particularly good role model, but what I can do is show that I am not too ‘posh to pick’. Despite other parents probably thinking I have some kind of penalty notice hanging over me, I will continue to clean up the park when I can and help my own children know the importance of helping to maintain our open spaces.

You can do this too, as Keep Scotland Beautiful are coordinating a Summer Clean from May 28th to June 20th as part of a Clean Up Scotland campaign. They are also working with others to support the Great British Spring Clean and they want to encourage as many people as possible to take action. You could organise a private event within your local community or record the litter you see to help them create a snapshot of litter in Scotland. The more people who get involved, the more we will tackle the real source of our local litter problem, the disconnect we have created between nature and the young and disenfranchised.

If young people see us tidying up and preserving urban parks and semi-wild spaces, they might not think picking up litter is embarrassing or a punishment when they are older, and instead view it as just another way of connecting with others who share our spaces. When everyone feels those natural spaces belong to them too, maybe we will find that the litter won’t be dropped in the first place.

[1] Once, I mentioned this to a dad whose child had asked why I was picking litter, and his very young daughter thought this was the perfect prompt to tell me in great detail about an incident involving her dad when he was a teenager, the police and some traffic cones. Only going to show that litter picking really helps you connect to local knowledge…

[2] Although if we are allowed to use the term ‘epidemic’ when not referring to COVID-19, it would certainly be appropriate to describe the current levels of waste left behind in some areas,.