Tackling litter – clearer laws will help, report suggests

  • Date

    Fri 5 Jun 20

With ongoing concern over the impact of waste on our environment, specifically the threat to marine life from plastic, a new report takes a timely look at our laws and responsibilities relating to litter and the costs to councils of dealing with it.

Professor Karen Hulme and Dr Samantha Davey, from the School of Law, are the authors of Litter Law, a new report from CPRE the countryside charity which makes a number of legal and policy recommendations.

The product of three years of research, their report looks at the problem of litter in the context of legal developments since 2016 and the government’s 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment.

Professor Karen Hulme said: “Litter itself can pose severe dangers to wildlife and deface our community spaces. Consequently, one of the principal questions that we posed was whether there were any gaps in the current anti-littering regime in terms of legal measures to deal with littering, as well as responsibilities for the clearance of litter and other debris.

“Importantly, we also looked beyond the strict confines of the law to other potential measures to help reduce the incidence of littering.”

While welcoming recent government initiatives, such as the 2017 Litter Strategy for England, the new report identifies a range of obstacles to progress on dealing with litter.

Attempts to protect our marine environment from litter are hampered by the lack of clear oversight.

In addition, the way in which litter law has evolved makes it overly-complex; a lack of clarity exists over land ownership and therefore responsibility; councils are exercising their powers in different ways, creating a ‘postcode lottery’ in enforcement; and confusion over responsibilities between different councils and agencies such as Highways England are resulting in action being delayed.

A further contribution to the report, by Professor Shahzad Uddin of Essex Business School, asks if we know the true cost of dealing with litter. His chapter, based on interviews and Freedom of Information requests, paints a picture of significant expenditure by cash-strapped councils, which is still failing to fully address the problem of litter. A survey of eight local authorities across Essex resulted in only one council, Basildon, providing a detailed breakdown of costs.

The authors have called for clarity regarding both the law and the regulation of aquatic litter; an analysis of water-borne litter levels, to inform an updated DEFRA Code of Practice on Litter and Refuse; greater cooperation; and transparency on the costs to councils resulting from litter.

They also suggest councils should provide greater incentives to businesses to take greater responsibility for their own litter and littering around premises, and that the UK learn from initiatives in other countries, such as bottle return schemes.

With the UK government proposing a new national litter campaign, the report also asks if its strategy will make councils and landowners too reliant on volunteers.

Litter Law is a second key contribution to environmental debates in recent weeks from our School of Law. In April, Essex hosted a two-day workshop featuring experts in human rights and climate change, with speakers including two United Nations Special Rapporteurs, past and present, and experts from the World Bank, NASA, our own University and academics based on three continents.

Professor Hulme and Dr Davey were assisted in their research by students from Essex Law Clinic.