Status anxiety

David Sedaris was right: litter is a class issue

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

David Sedaris is my new hero. Not because he’s such a funny writer, but because he’s obsessed with litter. He told a group of MPs last week that he spends up to five hours a day picking up fast food containers and fag ends around his home in Pulborough, west Sussex. Thanks to his unstinting labours, he’s become a local hero and has had a rubbish lorry named after him.

I’ve some way to go before I qualify for such an honour, but I do my bit. For instance, on Monday I spent an hour clearing the litter from the flowerbed outside the West London Free School in Hammersmith. This was rubbish left by passers-by, not the pupils. Sedaris said what infuriated him the most were crisp packets tied into a knot and stuffed into soft drink cans, but I can trump that. Among the detritus I came across was a fresh pile of human excrement. All I can say is that I’m glad the individual responsible wasn’t squatting in the flowerbed when we had our school open day last October.

According to Sedaris, shoppers at Tesco Metro drop more litter than Waitrose customers, an observation that got him into trouble with the Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who branded him a ‘snob’. But there’s no getting around the fact that the worst offenders are more likely to be at the bottom of the social pyramid than the top. I spend about ten minutes every evening picking up litter in my street in Acton and I’ve never come across an empty Evian bottle or a discarded carton of coconut water. No, it’s cans of Kronenbourg and Red Bull, along with polystyrene food containers. Sedaris complained about picking up more Mayfair cigarette boxes than any other brand in Pulborough, but in west London it’s Superkings. Always packets of ten, never 20.


Among my neighbours, the owner-occupiers behave the best when it comes to sticking to recycling rules. They dutifully separate their household rubbish into four categories — plastic, paper, food and general — and make sure that everything is in the right container. The essential thing is not to include any food waste in the black plastic bin bags you put out at night because the foxes always rip them open. This is the rule least likely to be observed by tenants in the multi-occupancy units and I often find myself outside their houses on rubbish day, scraping takeaway curry off the pavement.

As a general rule, I avoid chastising people and try to lead by example, but the other day I lost the plot with one of my neighbours. After filling a bin liner with food waste, I deposited it on their doorstep and pinned a strongly worded note to their door. I thought it would be cowardly to do it anonymously so I included my name and address — not the most sensible thing I’ve ever done.

A few days later, I received an email from the person in question, who turned out to be a highly respectable lady in her late seventies who’d been a resident of the street for 35 years. ‘I have just returned from a trip abroad to find your very insulting note stuck to my front door,’ she wrote. ‘While I do not feel I have to explain anything to you, I would explain to my less high-handed neighbours that while I was away my cleaner placed two black bins near the front of my house instead of putting them outside the back door. A mistake I feel does not warrant a torrent of recriminations.’

Absolutely right, of course, and she got her revenge by copying the email to everyone in the local residents’ association. It confirmed my reputation as the street’s self-appointed litter monitor, a curtain twitcher with a bin bag.

Sedaris thinks the best answer to this scourge of modern Britain — that’s the litter, not the busybodies who complain about it — is to set up roadblocks and fine any motorists with clean cars. The theory is that if there’s no rubbish in the footwell or stuffed into the glove compartment, they must have thrown it out the window. Not a bad plan, but a tad draconian.

I prefer a Big Society solution whereby people such as Sedaris and I organise little platoons which patrol the streets every evening, picking up litter and frowning at anyone who drops it. With a bit of luck, we’d shame people into having more respect for the public realm. If nothing else, at least we’d have the consolation of feeling morally superior. That’s what keeps me going.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Nick Harman

    It’s also a by-product of a multi-cultural society, people feel less concern for the ‘shared area’ and so dump in it. We can see this in microcosm in the shared areas of multi occupancy dwellings. Also some cultures don’t recognise the concept of litter – you don’t want something, you drop it.

    Amusing that the woman blamed her cleaner. Surely you could have guessed that few people in your street put their own bins out?

    Bill Bryson was a litter hater too wasn’t he?

    • ballsmonkey

      Bill’s not dead, I just checked.

    • Nick Harman

      I meant he was once when in Uk, I dont know if he still is since he went back to the US

    • Guest

  • BFagan

    I don’t think it was “highly respectable” to blame the cleaner, to whom this woman had apparently failed to give clear instructions, and ultimately it was this woman’s rubbish and her responsibility. While she didn’t feel the need to explain herself, she obviously did feel the need to place the blame on someone else and then take retaliatory action against the person who (correctly) sourced the rubbish back to her. Unpleasant, very.

  • JimHHalpert

    Litter is a tangible display of (anti-) social capital. Have you read chapter 4 of Niall Ferguson’s “The Great Degeneration” or listened to his fourth Reith Lecture ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jmxsk )?

    • Jody Taylor

      Oh don’t ask people to read Niall Ferguson – he’s the great white Satan as far as the Left is concerned BECAUSE HE SPEAKS THE TRUTH, of course.

    • baroquejen

      This is exactly right. I moved here 8 years ago, and I could tell immediately that the litter was a form of protest. It is obvious to someone who comes in from the outside. The most telling sign is where the litter is placed – including in hard to get at spots encased in fencing and other places where it is difficult to clean up and they know it will be there for a while. It is practically screaming ‘I feel powerless and this is the only way that I can get back at people and have some sort of effect on my environment’. It is a way to vent anger, pure and simple. I doubt it will ever be solved – it is just a part of the English culture. Lower unemployment rates among the young would be a start.

      • JimHHalpert

        Haha. But there is a reason that a sh*thole is called a sh*thole.

  • davidshort10

    I’m surprised TY has not been arrested, flung into a police cell and later charged with some life-spoiling offence for daring to pick up litter without some sort of training which involves gender and race awareness and the donning of a two-piece hi-viz suit and obtaining and paying for a licence for his picker-up. Plus of course he could be charged with racism for not acknowledging multi-culturalism. For instance, North Africans should be allowed to throw their cigarette packets on the ground immediately they are empty as they do on the streets of Tunisia.

    • Tim Gilling

      God, you’re tedious.

      • davidshort10

        Oh, do fuck off, you silly turd.

        • Tim Gilling

          I suppose we should be grateful you didn’t use the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’. TY’s article was quite interesting. Litter is one of my bete noires and I’m a huge fan of Sedaris. But you had to turn it into a rant against multiculturalism. I’m sorry but monomania – particularly when expressed so crudely and with so many cliches – is tedious. Thought you should know.

      • davidshort10

        Any chance you missed the irony?

    • Jody Taylor

      Spot on DavidShort!! You’ve got it right, absolutely. I only wish I’d thought of it first! Gender and racial awareness? What about cultural sensitivities? In Australia we have most of our major public forums addressed by “Aunty” this or ‘Uncle” that from some ancient Aboriginal tribe who ‘owned’ the land we’re standing on – and usually stylishly dressed in a nylon Woolworths dress, or a t-shirt and thongs for the man (God, I’d like to make a faux commercial for their apparel!). On one such formal occasion Aunty Janette Philips referred to our (female) Governor General as “your Royal Highness”. My husband and I laughed our sox off!!

      Crass, superfluous, patronizing and pandering. Political correctness in extremis. As in the movie, “The Big Lebowski”, poor Aunty Janette Philips was “out of your element, Donny”!!

  • little islander

    Where I live, there’s an army of cleaners to pick up after everybody and every year we boast of the number of jobs we created for locals and foreigns. Mr Young, you are a job-destroying and economy-shrinking lunatic!

  • SWhite

    Hope you folks like my litter newsletter, a weekly blog coming to you from Canada. Read it here http://www.litterpreventionprogram.com/uploads/1/3/0/3/13036366/litterland_2.047.pdf

    • LastmaninEurope

      Good luck with your newsletter. I am impressed that you care enough to take the time and effort to produce this, well done.

      • SWhite

        Thanks for the moral support. That’s my fuel. And thanks for caring to respond.

  • Damaris Tighe

    I recommend ‘Litter’ by Theodore Dalrymple (cheap second hand copies from amazon & http://www.abebooks.co.uk).

  • Jankers

    litter is a class issue, quite ironic when the wealthy employ a not so wealthy to clean up behind them even in their own homes.

  • ohforheavensake

    Hi Toby- you do know that if you paid a bit more in tax to the council, they could employ people to clean the streets? So you’d have clean streets, and someone else would have a job.

    That sounds like a win-win situation, Toby. What d’you say?

    • Mc

      A less bureaucratic solution would be to employ someone privately oneself to do the additional cleaning. I can imagine a council-employed cleaner would get a defined benefits pension, require additional managers to oversee him and he/she would be partial to going on strike at the slightest provocation. They’d also have to go through an expensive recruitment process to ensure they meet the council’s diversity targets. Not to mention having to pay for their annual H&S training and quarterly diversity re-education training.

      • Aberrant_Apostrophe

        And when the council has to cut back, who do you think they will sack? Yup, the cleaner.

        • Mc

          Tough. Should council workers and other civil servants be granted a special legal privilege where they’re immune from cutbacks, unlike the commercial world? When one takes on a job, it is known to both parties that redundancies are a possibility.

    • John Lea

      Nonsense, the useless councils get enough of our taxes as it is. And incidentally, picking up stray litter in the course of the weekly uplift is part of their duties anyway – why on earth would we pay them more cash to do something they’re already being paid to do?

      • GraveDave

        Yes, maybe they’re not doing the jobs properly they’re paid for to begin with. I know round my area I hardly ever even see a common road sweeper.So what’s going on? Or have they been cutting back on the service or something?

        • Ngaire Lowndes

          I’ve NEVER seen a road sweeper or anyone cleaning the gutters in my part of Guildford. We don’t have gutters, we have linear meadows… busily crumbling the tarmac with their questing roots. Litter pick-ups? Hah.

    • David

      Do people doing ‘community service’ have to pick up litter in Britain? I know they do in the US, but have never seen it here. Strikes me as a very good, communitarian thing to do – or is it somehow against their ‘uman rights?

    • GraveDave

      I’m all for a national litter clean up in principle.But this is just another Tory loving pretext to whinge about ‘dole scroungers’ and chavs. These whinging snobs will never change.

  • trace9

    Speaking of rubbish – that cover of the Spec went straight into the bin. Speaking of Web ID’s – mine was NOT on the label – shunned? Stunned! Speaking of embarrassment – for some forgotten reason once frustratedly swung a bag of overflow rubbish into a clump of Rhododendrons feet from Loch Portree, thinking them wild enough. Later that day a fusillaide of bangings on the door. ‘You threw this intae mah Rhodies!!’ Hem. Police threatened if repeated & I don’t blame him a whit. Shame, shame, SHAME!

  • NorthernFirst

    Recycling containers which don’t seal and just result in rubbish being blown left right and centre between being put-out and collected hasn’t helped.

    That said I completely agree that it’s a class thing. Lots of screbs in the world.

  • John Lea

    Can’t think of a decent argument against having long-term benefit claimants pick up litter – at least that way, tax-payers get something for their money, and the claimants get used to working, as well as the incentive to find a job.

    • Father Onabit

      I agree. And (certainly around where I live) a large percentage of these long-term benefit claimants are the main littering culprits in the first place. They may think twice before littering if they have to then go and pick it up.

      • Jody Taylor

        That’s a big call!!

    • GraveDave

      Yes but do you imagine your council taxes will be any less? And we all know the first ‘ long term benefit claimants’ to be put on the scheme wont be reflecting the diversity of the society that shares in the littering. Maybe Toby’s latest hero ought to go back to America and clean up his own back yard.

      Or maybe Harlem or somewhere.

    • Jody Taylor

      I wouldn’t agree with this; people on benefits should be working for their dole, but not picking up litter. Why not get prisoners to do that sort of work? I don’t see why welfare recipients should be humiliated and punished in this way, that’s all.

  • SalmondFishing

    Class or otherwise, we produce far to much litter per head of population. Needless litter, senseless littering, shocking amounts of one way packaging. Some will see the environmental aspects of this, others will see the monetary value in not wrapping things five times before they are consumed. In the latter sense Britain’s largest fast food (burger) chain, not middle class mums’ favourite food outlet M&S, is indeed unbelievably green. All packaging and just-in-time supply management is rationalised to the hilt. Others could learn from this if they only wanted to put their class issues aside for one moment.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Litter is a function of packaging: some products are packaged up to three times. In the round, people have not changed: 60 years ago there were no plasic bags but shopping bags. Fast food was not the vast industry it is today. Very little was ever thrown away. If you went to a popular beach or racecourse 60 years ago you would have seen litter on a scale to rival anything you see today: that was where the disposables were: it gave rise to the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign. There is however a class problem and Toby Young has it.

    • lakelander

      No. Litter is a function of human behaviour.

      • terence patrick hewett

        It is a “people kill people” versus “guns kill people” augument: you pays your money and takes your choice.

        • lakelander

          OK. Work to do on both.

    • GraveDave

      Class problem -what like racecourses and Ascot?

  • Guest

    !!

  • edithgrove

    Why didn’t the Spectator just print the Sedaris piece?

    • lakelander

      It was in the Guardian.

      • edithgrove

        I understand. I just miss the point of writing an article about an article that is elsewhere and a click away.

  • polistra24

    Platoons will increase the problem, not solve it.

    Won’t affect the people who simply don’t care, but it WILL be noticed by ‘trainable’ people who have some innate sense of cleanliness and pride.

    When you see that the litter is being picked up by SOMEONE ELSE, it relieves your own sense of responsibility.

    I know this because I’m one of those ‘trainable’ types, and I’ve gone both ways depending on whether I saw SOMEONE ELSE taking care of the problem. When NOBODY ELSE is picking things up, I’ll do it.

  • Zanderz

    Dropping litter is also cultural – anyone been to India? It’s evidence of the need to ban plastic bags!

    From what I’ve been told Indian culture mainly cares about the inside of the house, the outside / environment is generally irrelevant. (Yes, it’s a generalisation)

    I still tell the tale of a trip to a famous Indian nature reserve. A coach load of middle class Indians we’re having a picnic lunch on the grass near the entrance. They had a good lunch and then all 30 of them got up and left all the litter on the floor – loads of plastic plates and bags, drinks bottles, wrappers, etc – at the entrance to a nature reserve – oh the irony.

    That’s my anecdote for the day.

    • GraveDave

      (Yes, it’s a generalisation)

      Years ago when I lived in Southall there was a black road sweeping gang run by a Barbadian called Ralph. And I had just stopped to ask how he was doing when he stopped me and showed me his radio. Then as I waited he called through to base ((this was back in the 80s before cell phones) and started swearing his head off and telling the manager he had just swept a road when someone came out of the house and threw a folded up disposable nappy full of its doings into the gutter. He was going crazy. Later when he had sent his message and they said they would get somebody over there he started going on about it to me and calling these people dirty p–s this and dirty p–s that, though in all likelihood the family in that house were Indian. But if you go through any part of Southall nowadays very little has changed in the way of littering and rubbish. Anyway, I’m sure Toby , who knows west London well enough, would already have seen much the same himself. But of course he wouldn’t ever dare write about it as a ‘race issue’.

  • Kevin C

    The real issue with litter in modern Britain is how it disfigures the countryside. I live in Shropshire and verges of the main route through the county, the A49, is strewn with rubbish thrown, not by the locals, but by the occupants of cars, lorries and more especially vans passing through the county. Farmers are also to blame, and also workers employed the by the utility companies who usually leave a pile of detritus in their wake. I’m afraid this goes deep into the heart of the British psyche as it has developed over the last 40 years, and there are no easy answers, but a start would be for councils (or voluntary groups as happens in the USA) to pick up the rubbish (which they hardly ever do) and start fining people and drivers who throw it (never happens). I recently spent a week in rural France driving perhaps a thousand miles and didn’t see one speck of litter, literally. It reminded me of driving the in the UK in the 60s. That’s not because the French have more draconian laws than us or are better at picking it up, it’s because the French people don’t throw the stuff in the first place. But we are are long way from that concern for the natural world and other people exhibited by our more civilized neighbours and in the meantime draconian punishment seems to be the only answer.

    • GraveDave

      he A49, is strewn with rubbish thrown, not by the locals, but by the occupants of cars, lorries and more especially vans passing through the county.

      Oh but according to Toby its a class issue. Still, not many poor lorry drivers I know of live in hovels or poor run down areas.

  • maxixe

    Does anyone but Toby Young still refer to the “Big Society”? Even Cameron seems to have quietly dropped it.

  • oj95

    I just don’t understand why people can’t put litter in the bin. It seems as basic as washing yourself or getting out of bed in the morning. Bad parenting?

    • lakelander

      Definitely a parenting issue.

  • lakelander

    I too have just started litter picking a country lane which is the favourite haunt of youngsters smoking drugs in cars. Sedaris is quite right about the product wrappers and cans tending to be low-end of the market but that is probably as much due to age as class.

    I don’t know where we begin with littering. It needs a comprehensive approach: volunteers to pick it up; local authorities to be more on the ball; a public education campaign; stiff fines for offenders (but it is so hard to catch them in the act).

    • Ngaire Lowndes

      Parents firmly teaching their offspring that Littering Is Disgusting And Wrong would be a good start.

  • amajamus

    This has been a bad week for me. I learned something about myself from the internet that makes me a bad person: I am an upper-class snob (despite the fact I am unemployed and I am perpetually broke.) ***

    I took a poll on the internet that says because I use adverbs correctly I am a snob. Because I like “different” music (I like Jazz) I am a snob. Because I have an advance degree I am a snob. Because I like to read and have a (physical) book collection of over two-hundred books and an ebook library of over three-hundred books, and a PDF collection of nearly two-hundred pieces I am an upper-class snob.

    Add to that me being a white-male who is supposedly full of white-privilege and supposedly a practitioner of man-spreading.

    And to add fuel to the fire, because I don’t litter and care about my neighborhood, I am an upper-class snob (okay, the snob part is implied but still there if you look hard enough.)

    I think I will put on my Bose noise-cancelling headphones and listen to my Peter Brotzmann collection, light up a Romeo y Julieta cigar, and drink a nice glass of Port wine.

    *** I have to be an upper-class snob because the internet is never wrong!

  • davidshort10

    If the minister in charge of the DWP had any sense he would bring in a VOLUNTARY policy for jobseekers to pick up litter not just to keep their benefits but be given perhaps an extra tenner a day and let them pick their own days so they still have time to seek jobs or attend interviews. All they need is a litter picker upper and a plastic bag. Don’t think it would really eat into jobs already being done by full timers as litter is never ending in Britain.

  • mike whitty

    Tax cigarette butts, yes tax them! If people throw them down then someone has to clean them up so make the culprits pay! I do not smoke cigarettes so why should I pay taxes to clean up the trash left by smokers or why should any other non-smoker do so for the same reasons. Tax cigarettes say another £2 per pack that is 10p per filter tip and make sure that that tax goes to local councils to pay to clear them up. Same with chewing gum tax it at £1 per packet make the louts who spit it onto the ground pay for it’s clear up! Britain has become a filthy dump partly due to these inconsiderate litterers make em pay and hit em in the pocket they may think twice then but somehow I doubt it!

  • andrew

    Excellent article. Like Toby, I am always picking up polystyrene cartons, fag packets and the ubiquitous red bull cans (it’s always red bull) from my street (Bournemouth). And it is a class issue – I used to live in a more middle class affluent area – hardly any litter. Now, after having to move to a less salubrious surroundings, there is rubbish everywhere. I have become the local unpaid litter picking fairy.

    And our main roads are a disgrace – next time you drive along any ‘A’ road or Motorway glance at the verges and laybys – they will be plastered with litter – wherever you are. I drive fairly regularly through Europe – hardly any litter on main roads. Germany in particular is spotless. We are, in the main, a filthy nation with no respect for the environment, others, or any civic pride. And the worst offenders are the “working” class.

  • Chip Supper

    Toby Young may be associate editor of The Spectator but he needs to get a grip on his command of the English language.

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