Brockley's White Pollution

Returning from spotless Sweden, we read about China's war on white pollution: "the term used to describe the visual eyesores caused by Styrofoam trays and carrier bags, which snag on trees and get blown far and wide by the wind."

Later, when we got home, we put on our gardening gloves and scooped up the pile of carrier bags, bin bags, fag packets and evangelical leaflets which regularly accumulates in our front garden, blown in off the street (the former occupier having for some reason decided to remove the front gate).

The Council, in our opinion, do a reasonable job of cleaning the streets of Brockley, but they are fighting an uphill battle against a plague of plastic bags and fried chicken boxes, dropped every day.

So the question is: can we do anything about it? Would a campaign, already proposed by readers, to encourage local shops to stop giving out plastic bags work?

Persuading Brockley's more chi-chi outlets to drop plastic bags would be about as difficult as persuading them to stock Fairtrade coffee and most already use paper. But what about Costcutter, Co-Op or our local corner shop, which will routinely offer us a plastic bag when we pop in to buy one bottle of milk, despite the fact that we always say no?

What about fried chicken places? Is there anything that can be done to encourage customers to use a bin?

The police have recently spent a lot time trying to persuade places of business not to allow DVD sellers (usually people who have recently been trafficked) from operating on their premises, and giving out posters to display in their windows to deter them from entering. Could similar tactics have an impact on litter? Would the Council need to be involved?

Could people power persuade local businesses to change their ways? Would you want them to?


J said...

Australia has a "clean up australia" day each year which they are attempting to turn into a "clean up the world campaign" A bit like what the BCAG group did around the station on steriods.

Whilst culturally I doubt the Uk would do this on a national, or even city wide basis, it may have some hope locally, particularly with green councillors.

Bea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bea said...

I expect there'd be an outcry and accusations of being middle class and chattering if this was enforced in Brockley.

However, M&S have recently announced they will charge 5p per bag and in France and Germany bags are no longer provided in supermarkets (unless you buy a sturdy looking one that last for years).

I think a plastic bag free environment would be great - there's invariable one or two bags stuck in the trees along my road and it looks skanky. (Although my 4 year old thinks they're great as he is convinced they're balloons fluttering up there).

Brockley Nick said...

@Bea - you are probably right about the accusations of chattering class interference, but I find that kind of attitude truly exasperating! Litter is a problem which affects us all, and poorer people most of all.

The middle classes are the ones best able to insulate themselves from this kind of problem, by living on posher streets and popping off to the countryside whenever they want a break from the trials of urban living.

@Jon S - I agree, it would be a nice symbolic action, but the problem is continuous - clean up one day and there will be fried chicken boxes to step over the next morning.

Anonymous said...

We need a a couple of the chicken merchants to close down. That would help.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, but judging by the state of the pavements, they are doing great business.


J said...

Bizare as this sounds, a cleanup campaign helps people take pride in their area. You get the heavy lifing tools of the police and fire brigade for free, and people involved get very angry when someone messes up what they have cleaned.

Anonymous said...

I must admit, in Brockley I get an astounding amount of junk mail through the door - usually from aforementioned chicken joints and cheap pizza places offering massive amounts of cheap deep fried chicken, litres of coke etc for 99p or whatever.

It all goes straight into the recycling bin, but some does seem to end up blowing about the street for some reason. It'd be nice to see a limit on the amount of this irrelevant junk.

Bea said...

Funnily enough out PM has just made a statement about this. Just read it on the BBC website "PM warns stores over carrier bags"

Pete said...

With regards paper bags, they are apparently even less green to produce than plastic bags. (I can't find the reference for this but I think George Monbiot may have written about it).

The answer is for people to remember to take bags with them when they go to the shops and for people to use the bins that the council provides for their boxes of chicken etc.

It wouldn't surprise me if Lewisham was one of the first boroughs in London to introduce a ban on plastic bags but no doubt people who post on here would accuse the council of overstretch.

Anonymous said...

Must admit as I get older I get less tolerant. I saw a spotty oik drink a can of pop and just drop it on the floor. I should have had a word....or killed him.

Bins are not that pleasent to look at but perhaps more of them would help?

Free newspapers get on my tits as well by the way.

I'm off to buy the Daily Mail and worry about the country going to the dogs.

Brockley Nick said...

Pete, I think you're referring to this?

As always, it's a complex issue, and the argument about whether a tax on bags would lead to an increase in plastic usage is different to an argument about street litter (people might buy more bin bags and use more plastic, but they are less likely to throw them on the floor...)

But there are a few undisputed ways in which the area could be both cleaner and greener:

1. People use fewer bags of any sort (I cited the example of a shop offering a bag to carry a single bottle of milk - completely unncessary)

2. The bags people do use are dropped on the floor less often - JonS' example of a cleanup campaign encouraging people to take more responsibility for their actions, might be a way to achieve this.

Brockley Nick said...

Sorry, here's the full link:

re: overstretch - this is precisely the kind of area which Council's should be addressing, in my opinion. I don't think you can put it in the same category as trying to bring down the WTO.

Andrew Brown said...

There's a London wide Bill - as there is every year - going through Parliament which'll ban plastic bags.

Anonymous said...

As a white man I resent the undertones in the title of this thread.

Do you have any idea what it's like being a white, middle-class, professional male these days?

Anonymous said...

Middle class? I had you down as landed gentry. Does that mean I no longer have to tug my forelock and an end to the thrashings when i see you?

Anonymous said...

You want to end the thrashings? I have mine done with a rolled up copy of the Telegraph

Anonymous said...

One adopts the guise of a city drone, Monkeyboy. Helps keep the riffraff at bay.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of councils and plastic bags, I've just been talking to my friend, a Greenwich council resident, about their new recycling policy. Whilst they provide bins for the recyclable waste, the residents must put their non-recyclable waste in black bin bags, which the council won't supply. Any other type of bag and they won't collect it.She's taken to putting her non-recyclable rubbish in street bins.

Anonymous said...

i'm all for initiatives to keep the community tidy

however from a green point of view, why everyone gets so hung up about plastic bags i don't know, wiping them out completely would make about 0.01% difference to environmental problems, this like fair trade nonsense (i.e. getting the market to solve a problem created by the market), wasted food on the other hand which rots in landful and generates methane is a far bigger culprit

also allows, as usual, capital to commodify the problem and sell it back to us as consumers

Brockley Nick said...

@ross - it depends what you mean by "green". Rubbish on the street may not be drowning the polar bears but it makes our environment decidedly less nice, which is absolutely a green issue. Agree with you on food but no idea what you are on about with your anti-capitalist point at the end.

max said...

Ross, have you ever heard about the plastic that is accumulating at the bottom of the sea an into the fish?
Plastic bags are one of the great environmental problems of our time they're nearly eternal.

T1 said...

hmmm, and all non-capitalist countries were well renowned for there environmental purity weren't they?

*cough* Chernobyl *cough* Aral Sea *cough* Yellow River *cough*

Brockley Nick said...

I just got this email through, following a Downing St e-petition I signed a while ago on the topic of plastic bags...

As you may have seen from recent media reports, this is a subject that the Prime Minister feels strongly about. As he said last year, our eventual aim should be to eliminate single-use carrier bags altogether. Plastic bags are the most easily reducible form of waste, cutting them out of our lives is one of the most straightforward ways we can all do something directly to improve our environment, reduce pollution and stop their harm to wildlife.

We want people to refuse disposable bags in shops, but if they do accept them, to reuse and eventually recycle them. If we all adopted this approach as a nation we could cut sharply the 13 billion plastic bags, or ten a week for the typical household, which are used and wasted every year.

But we can go further than this. As the Prime Minister has said, if Government compulsion is needed to make the change, we will take the necessary steps. The Government does not take such steps lightly but the damage that single-use plastic bags inflict on the environment is such that strong action must be taken. We have not decided on what precise scheme would work best - we will look at the experiences of other countries around the world in deciding how to approach the problem.The important thing is to come up with a scheme that will be of most benefit, most quickly. Ideally at the same time to secure funds for organisations that help protect our environment.

The actions of millions of British people will send a message right across the world that - as with light bulbs, and standby settings - we can address the danger to our planet. Through the Climate Change Bill, our Act on CO2 campaign, and a new impetus for renewable energy, we are leading the way.

Anonymous said...

"hmmm, and all non-capitalist countries were well renowned for there environmental purity weren't they?"

way to miss the point - where did i say they were, or even hint that they were (although if you want to be pedantic about it, given capitalism was the only system capable of giving us industrialisation, and transmitting that process to your so called non-capitalist ussr/ukraine, it probably is responsible, but that's not my argument here)

my only comment on the matter was that capitalism is the only system that would turn a social/environmental problem into a commodity form and sells it back to us (buy a red phone from bono and stop aids, buy some coffee from this nice darkie fellow and stop poverty, recession? shop our way out of it, etc.. etc...)

Anonymous said...

"but the damage that single-use plastic bags inflict on the environment is such that strong action must be taken."

what is this damage though, in quantifiable terms, and put relatively amongst a host of other much more damaging activities, if plastic bags are receiving such attention, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect that other activities that create much bigger problems would be receiving much more attention and action, i'd have thought so but it doesn't seem to be the case, tokenism and platitudes seem to be the driving force here tbh

(btw i'm someone who never takes any kind of bags from shops and always carries a rucksack to carry stuff in, but i don't think for a minute it will make one iota of difference in the scheme of things)

Anonymous said...

"it depends what you mean by "green". Rubbish on the street may not be drowning the polar bears but it makes our environment decidedly less nice"

well that's why i said as my very first comment i'm all for initiatives that keep our communities tidy and provide a decent, safe, accessible, friendly space for people to live in, to be honest though for all the rubbish i see in catford it's very rarely plastic bags causing the problem

Brockley Nick said...

a) they do create serious problems - as discussed already.

b) so what if there are other problems too? It is something that can relatively easily and quickly be dealt with, unlike, say, global warming.

Perhaps it's the humdrum simplicity of the solution which doesn't appeal to the SWP radical in you? Far more fun to grapple with issues where few easy solutions are evident and therefore we can spend all our time, blaming capitalism and globalisation, ad nauseum ;)

Anyway, speaking of missing the point, the question was whether anything could be done locally, to encourage businesses and the public to change their habits.

Anonymous said...

"a) they do create serious problems - as discussed already."

what kind of serious problems though?

"b) so what if there are other problems too? It is something that can relatively easily and quickly be dealt with, unlike, say, global warming."

well my point on this was that i was under the imrpession that the prime minister and his govt should be focussing on the big problems, his direct involvement in this type of things seems nothing more than opportunist tokenism to me

"SWP radical"


Anonymous said...

2 points on this - one political, one personal.

1 - Individuals´contribution to environmental problems is dwarfed by the effects of industry and commerce. I am all for responsible living but that has to be proportional. Where is the political outcry about businesses´impact on the environment? It is convenient for the government to turn this, as with other issues, into a matter of ´personal responsibility´which often impacts the working class to a greater degree than anyone else. Yet some bloke on a cheap flight to Malaga once a year is hardly comparable to his employer, the factory/office/importer/restaurant/whatever.

2 - On a slightly lighter note, the main litter problem in my road is caused by the council. The big bins for the block of flats they own are easily accessible by foxes, so I often see bags of rubbish on the street that have been ripped open and strewn around (regular readers may recall the chicken carcass incident ...). I have emailed the council to ask them to fit properly lidded bins to prevent this, and recieved a reply that "all our bins are the same around the borough and therefore we can´t change them to suit local circumstances" - which to me sounds as close to "eff off" as makes no difference.

max said...

Kate, I think that on your point one you forgot to consider the law of supply and demand.
Industry only produces what consumers' demand, and consumer demand is the sum of individual consumptions.

Anonymous said...

yeah because desires & wants are not artificially constructed & thrust upon us whatsoever, continually tugging at our desires without ever conferring satisfaction, oh no...

Anonymous said...

He's off on one again.....

Anonymous said...

Imposing a charge for a plastic bag will have a huge effect in this is done nationally. If this charge was used to make biodegradable bags a cheap alternative, so much the better.

I am sure the plastic bag industry will rise to the challenge of creating a product that is useful for getting your purchased home, then reliably rots away to dust.

It just needs an economic nudge in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

One of the most obvious manifestations of the value of local government is how clean the streets are. Lewisham seems to have a woeful attitude. Why do we have to put up with huge commercial wastebins on the pavement? Why can't they be put around the back of the shops in the mews rather than residing and overflowing onto the pavement?

J said...

Biodegradable plastic bags have been around for a fair while, they are made from food products, e.g. milk or corn flour. Actually most shirt buttons are caesin, a plastic made from milk. See this link.

The problem with them is that:
1. People recycle them with normal plastics, ruining an entire batch of recycled plastic.
2. Significant use of food products in plastics will increase the demand for food (with biofuels). This will further push up food prices and more people will starve, particularly in the developing world.

Anonymous said...

The whole plastic problem will resolve itself when the oil runs out. Some suggest it will be as soon as 10-15 years time.

Anonymous said...

Max, perhaps you could consider the concept of imperfect markets? Plus externalities.

Also, your statement is somewhat blinkered in that it relates only to industries for which the individual is the direct customer; there are many industries (defence, pharmaceuticals and medical research, much of industrial and chemical manufacturing) where this is not the case, and the organisations that ARE the consumers have very little interest in 'green' issues.

Anonymous said...

I always used to walk everywhere. Sainsbury's and back, with two rucksacks, one on my back and the other on my chest. Until 7/7 when I saw people giving me a wide birth, and many others who used to say when I started pushing my child in a pram too, WHY DON'T YOU GET A BLOODY CAR!

I was quite proud of my non car use for many decades. However, I must say I'm rather proud too of not having made a difference. I quote Ghandi (not very well) when I say: "What you do will not make a difference. Nevertheless, you must do it anyway."

max said...

Kate, thanks for introducing me to these economic concepts that I had somehow managed to ignore all of my life.

I nevertheless doubt that my guilt from consumption will disappear now that I know of them, it still seems to me that those concepts don't really make a significant dent into the idea that the market is fundamentally consumer driven.

Anyway, funny you introducing the concept of externality that I read on Wikipedia is "an impact (positive or negative) on any party not involved in a given economic transaction.".

I say funny because your original example was such a perfect externality-bearing one:
"some bloke on a cheap flight to Malaga once a year is hardly comparable to his employer, the factory/office/importer/restaurant/whatever"

Ryanair gets the money, the bloke goes to Malaga and as a result of their transaction a bit more CO2 is released straight were it shouldn't so that the environment bears the cost. Damage to the environment is then paid by society in a number of forms.

But hey wait, you do think that Ryanair, as an industry damages the environment.
Now, I ask you, do you think that they would fly so much if there wasn't a demand from millions of them blokes going to Malaga for a weekend?

I also don't think that the fact that some industries produce for clients that are not individuals (like the defence industry) exonerate people from their responsibilities.

By the way, I don't think that the pharmaceutical, medical and chemical industries research products if they don't think they can sell them, they may not sell all of their products directly to the final consumer but it is on them that they make their market researches.

The imperfect markets, do you mean monopolies, oligopolies, monopsonies and oligopsonies?
They surely are undesirable market situations but do they escape the law of supply and demand? Do they? I honestly ask, I am not an economist but I can't see why they should be exempt from it?
But mostly, how would that change the fact that the mass consumes of the developed world are a problem and all individuals involved bear their little share of responsibility?
What is your objection to the proposition that if all people with disposable income would use it in ways that have less environmental footprint rather than more then part of the problem would be solved?

Anonymous said...

Interesting thread. Somehow I think the streets would be more litter free and less fly-tipped if they started to fine the perpetrators for what is essentially anti-social behaviour. They have started to trial this in Harlow.

They have taken this approach to litter in the US since the early 80s and although the US still produce vast amounts of waste, if you litter or fly tip you risk getting fined heftily. It also helps to re-enforce community action to keep the place tidy of the little litter that is dropped.

Current approach of council doing a great job tidying up after the messy so and sos who have no incentive to change their behaviour looks like an endless not so virtuous circle. It is difficult to be proud of a place where litter is not taken more seriously.

ade said...

think the best approach to deal with the litter issue is to look at bringing a number of projects:people drop litter for a variety of reasons (the unec plastic bag for a bottle of milk for ex can be dealt with by targeting shop keepers, asking them to only give bags out when people ask specifically (should be fairly easy in brockers as we have no major branded chains) re foxes we could try to get rspca to lobby council maybe? and so on...

Anonymous said...

Not PC to say so but littering, as with most anti-social behaviour, is largely a function of socioeconomic class. SE4 has lots of poor people in it. The litter won't change before that does.

Anonymous said...

depends how you define anti-social though i suppose

what's the solution to ensure that there are no poor people making your streets look untidy then

i) push for more social & economic redistributive initiatives, so the poor become less poor, and then according to you, less untidy or

ii) push the poor people out of the area through making it increasingly difficult for them to afford to live in that area (will take a couple of generations)

i'd say the later option, an option which tends to be pursued (at best subconsciously, at worst explicitly) in regeneration/gentrification drives, is a prime example of anti-social behavior writ large

Anonymous said...

Or 3: have LBC ask people to stop being so selfish with their litter and general behaviour.

You're right - 2.

T1 said...

Can we put Hugh and Ross in the same room together to fight it out?

Anonymous said...

Hugh, your views seem to have become increasingly cynical and right wing. I can't say that I necessarily always disagree with you but what happened mate? What happened to that glint of optimism?!

Anonymous said...

"ask people to stop being so selfish with their litter"

this does somewhat contradict your previous assertion that the litter problem won't be solved until poor people are eradicated (through either option)

for the record though, i'm unrepentantly against all forms of anti-social behaviour, not least because, like most other things in life, the most disadvantaged sections of society suffer the effects of that behaviour in a disproportionate way to the rest of society, having not the resources at their disposal that others do to mitigate/diminish/shield themselves from the effects of that behaviour

Anonymous said...

Ross, my otion 3 was rhetorical, which is why I went for option 2.

Headhunter, what's cynical or right-wing about pointing out that poor people are more likely to litter or behave anti-socially?

Anonymous said...

Ross, interesting to see why you're against anti-social behaviour. Personally, I'm against it because I don't like suffering it.

Anonymous said...

and who does?

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