Status anxiety

My obsession with litter is bordering on mental illness

My fury at the sight of rubbish is now so great that I’ve started picking it up wherever I happen to go

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

It’s no good. I’ve tried to resist it, but I’ve succumbed. I’m now a full-blown litter Nazi.

Whenever I leave my house, I make a point of taking a plastic bag with me so I can pick up litter. This is in Acton, mind you, so we’re talking a full-size bin liner, not your common-or-garden Sainsbury’s job. Everything goes in the bag. Not just beer cans and cigarette packets — I’m talking about mucky stuff like wet newspapers, polystyrene takeaway containers and banana skins. I even pick up those little black plastic bags full of excrement that some dog owners carefully place beside trees or hang on railings.

My children are mortified by this behaviour. They usually try to physically restrain me, pinning my arms to my side, or, failing that, run ahead, shouting, ‘Ergh’ and ‘Yucky’. They’re right to be embarrassed. I often attract queer looks from passers-by, who aren’t used to seeing middle-aged men in suits bent double over the pavement, manically trying to scrape a wet tissue off the asphalt. I’ve become so obsessed that I’m thinking about buying one of those industrial machines street cleaners use to remove chewing gum from the pavement.

Until recently, I limited myself to my road because the job is so time-consuming. On rubbish days, you will find me patrolling up and down, inspecting my neighbours’ waste to make sure they haven’t put anything in the wrong place. Woe betide any resident who gets the day wrong, which is easy to do given that bank holidays push everything forward by 24 hours. They will receive a personal call from their local rubbish monitor, who will explain the finer points of Ealing Council’s collection policy, often at great length.


If they’re out, I’ll pin a note to their door, although someone complained about that recently, saying it was like a gold-embossed invitation to burglars, advertising the fact that no one was home.

But my irrational fury at the sight of rubbish is now so great that I’ve started picking it up everywhere else as well. My children refuse to go for walks with me on Hampstead Heath because they know I’ll fill several bin liners along the way — although, to be fair, the Heath is relatively clean compared with some other public spaces in London. I could literally spend my entire life on Shepherd’s Green picking up litter. I wouldn’t even have time to grab a quick takeaway from the 12 fried chicken outlets on the Uxbridge Road.

How do I know there are 12? Because I scrape the discarded boxes off the pavement when I walk my children home from school.

It’s worse in the country. Drive along any motorway or dual carriageway and you’ll see rubbish piling up on the central reservation. I never cease to be shocked by it. I mean, what goes through a driver’s head when they wind down the window and throw out a half-drunk can of Coca-Cola at 90mph? I would send them to jail for ten years if I could. And the beaches! Don’t get me started on the beaches. We’ve become a nation that prefers to sit at home watching David Attenborough programmes about our coastline than do anything to preserve it.

I pity the small army of BBC ‘researchers’ who were tasked with picking up all the litter before the saintly presenter strolled into shot. I’m a civil libertarian, but I would have no problem stationing CCTV cameras on every beach in Britain so that anyone leaving behind so much as a crisp packet could be fined £1,000.

Why do I care so much about this? No doubt there’s a smidgeon of mental illness involved. It’s probably a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder — litter rage. It certainly seems to be getting worse as I get older. But I also think it’s a respectable thing to get worked up about. I’m not just talking about the impact of litter on the environment or the risk it poses to wildlife. It’s the underlying carelessness that infuriates me, the casual disdain for the common weal — private wealth and public squalor. I haven’t become some frothing-at-the-mouth advocate of more public spending, but I do think we could be better custodians of our shared spaces.

My preferred solution would be for David Cameron to appoint a litter tsar who could organise Big Society-style clean-ups, assembling armies of volunteers who would sweep across Britain like benign locusts, leaving a spotless environment in their wake. Prime Minister, if you’re reading, I stand ready to serve.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Ross Parker

    You should make a date with David Sedaris, Toby. He’s also a keen picker. Litter picking is not fashionable these days. I volunteer for village litter pick, but it gets a lot less kudos than the “green” organisations – the anti-fracking group, etc.

  • Bahamas97x

    Where does all this rubbish REALLY come from? I suspect a lot of it falls off recycling lorries. It certainly seems that litter has gone up vastly since recycling started in a big way.
    20 years ago you saw little in the way of litter. There’s only 2 possibilities – either people have suddenly become a lot more blase about throwing it out as they drive/walk along, or its falling out of rubbish/recycling lorries.

    • CouchSlob

      I don’t agree. We had plenty of rubbish lorries driving around in 1995, and I didn’t see a lack of litter on the streets. Then as now, it’s people being inconsiderate.

      Any bus in London will be rolling with strewn drinks cans and chicken bones by 2pm. Commuter trains aren’t much better. By 8am they’re ankle deep in coffee cups and discarded Metros. It’s people, not giving a toss about anyone but themselves.

    • pippy1958

      I also do not agree – I walk a lot and the litter is often in places where recycling lorries do not go, ie, the forest or parks. It is also scattered in horrendous amounts around traffic lights, exactly where people throw it out of car windows. I HATE litter with a vengeance and have also resorted to litter picking as I walk around my local area. Unfortunately, Bahamas97x I therefore think it is the 1st possibility and as has been suggested, perhaps we need a litter tsar of some description or another (also while I have seen a certain amount of rubbish “falling out of rubbish/recycling lorries” it is generally due to the lack of care (or perhaps they just do not have the time) of the rubbish men who often leave a trail of rubbish in their wake).

    • mrs1234

      Sadly the reason “people have suddenly become a lot more blase about throwing it out as they drive/walk along,”
      I live in London and people just chuck there stuff on the streets with impunity. Who is gonna stop them? I watch kids come out of school, go in MacDonalds and dump their trash on the pavement despite there being bins right near where they have been sitting. It must be ‘cool’ or something. It’s the same in the park – rubbish just dumped and bins ignored.
      Council officials don’t confront the gangs of lads or girls but they will confront a middle aged man or woman out on their own who might drop an apple core or a cigarette butt. No respect for the place they live, no respect for any amenities provided, horrible attitudes all round. 🙁

    • The Hoxton Hockler

      Correct . Every Monday when the filthy recycling waggon appears ,our street is strewn with plastic bottles flattened by cars and bits if old magazine blowing about.

    • Lemsip

      It’s the general waste put out into black bin bags that causes the litter not recycling unless the receptacles aren’t cleaned out before placing into green bags. Cats and gulls are attracted to the smell of rotting food in the black bin bags and will tear them apart. That’s why there needs to be wheelie bins replacing black bin bags everywhere.

  • Melanie Gifford
  • Gahd McAfi

    Help! By no fault of my own I mistakingly didn’t discard a aluminium beer bottle top into a designated green recycling recepticle. Now we are all going to die!!!

    • Al

      If it was a beer bottle top it was probably steel not aluminium. Either way, you were possibly correct not to put it in the recycling as small items can cause problems for the recycling machinery. West London’s recycling authority asks that bottle tops be removed and not recycled

      • The Hoxton Hockler

        Well Toby is too bad to be a Womble.

  • JimHHalpert

    Toby, you sound like Niall Ferguson ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jmxsk ).

  • johnhenry

    All the major urban centres around where I live (Ontario, Canada) are devoid of serious street litter problems. It might have something to do with our still being a fairly homogenous country, which in turn might be due to our often bitterly cold winters.

    • Victor

      Toby, Toby, Toby. You are allowing your understandable fury with litterers to take you beyond reason.
      There are those who litter on purpose, like the people who scrape posh cars with a key, to express their inner whatever. There are others who litter at will, as a matter of course, who know no better. Then there are those who dump for a reason, like people who earn money by fly-tipping, etc.
      There is another category, though, of people who have no clue about beauty of the environment, who just dump.
      My neighbour is one of those, whom we love dearly, yet he cannot see the difference between mess and recycling. Next time you take a walk around Acton, check out 30, Heathfield Road. Caroline knows my neighbour’s wife well from the Park Club.
      My neighbour expouses everything Green sincerely yet is unable to see mess. Only legislation will keep these miscreants in order. Ealing Council already has in place a “report your neighbour” scheme incorporating fines, etc. but what to do?

      • Andrew Cole

        Well you’ve decided to use the ‘OUT THEM VERY PUBLICLY ON A NATIONAL NEWSPAPER WEBSITE’ route so I guess the ‘what to do’ is rhetorical.

    • El_Sid

      By most measures Canada is less homogeneous than the UK. One reason for the UK’s litter problem is your southern neighbours funding people who put bombs in public litter bins, which meant many were taken out in the 1980s/90s and never replaced. As someone who always tries to put litter in a bin, it can be really hard to find one in some places. Obviously there’s a lot of scuzzy oiks who just don’t care, but the IRA is one reason for our litter problem.

  • davidshort10

    Buy a litter picker-up. You can buy a folding one on Amazon.

    • Lemsip

      Buy a litter picker but not from Amazon.

      • Jethro Asquith

        No. Buy a litter picker from whoever you want; Amazon included.

        • Lemsip

          If you buy from Amazon when you can buy from somewhere else you are an idiot who doesn’t care about the exploitation of workers right up to executive level and that Amazon has been avoiding pay taxes.

          • Jethro Asquith

            I congratulate them for avoiding tax that there is no legal obligation to pay. Calling me an idiot will not stop me buying from Amazon. In fact I am more likely to use them more often.

  • A personal view

    I agree 100%. In my park I always try to pick up a couple of bits of litter and put them in bin. I always think if everyone of us who is likeminded did the same, our park would spotless (South Park, Fulham).

  • Darling, there’s nothing wrong with you. Your only problem is that you are a sane and decent man living in a warped, dirty, ungrateful world.

    I was praised once as a child for picking up litter. I saw newsprint blowing on a path near a lake and got off my bike to put it in a wastebin. A senior citizen on a bench neaby was audibly impressed. I didn’t do it to win her approval, though it was nice enough and better than ‘oy, you!’. I’ve always hated litter. Who wouldn’t?

    In America our worst culprits are Mexicans. I don’t know why. They litter like breathing, the cretins. And there are Mexicans ALL over America now, whether we want them or not.

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      Some humans are absolutely filthy, they wouldn’t throw their rubbish around their
      homes, or maybe they would. People who walk along and spit on the ground is another
      thing that riles me. I’ve heard about the grubbiness of Mexicans from a blogging chum
      Sarah, she’s furious, she also points about south- American crime they bring with them
      and she’s not too keen on hearing Spanish spoken more then English. And they apparently have a lot of children. Sounds a bit like our Middle Eastern Lodgers here 😉

  • Al

    Dear Toby, about a mile from your Acton home there are hundreds of men sitting idly in Wormwood Scrubs prison. Why don’t you use your considerable influence to have some of those men sent out on litter picking crews.

    • Lemsip

      Agreed. When somebody is convicted of a minor crime and given a community service order then they should spend at least the first few weeks picking up litter rather than digging gardens or helping in a youth club.

  • Teacher

    Good for you. You’re quite right.

  • Scylla

    Part of this is that it is very uncool to use a bin when out with mates (among some young people.)
    There are also degrees of littering – place your can upright on the ground – place it by a wall – on the wall – in a front garden. People seem to think this is more excusable than simply tossing it away.

    • The Hoxton Hockler

      The young appear happy to lob empty bottles out of car windows, and the sides of roads are strewn with broken glass on Saturday mornings.
      Since the Councils stopped road sweeping there are far more punctures, especially near building sites as lazy builders never sweep up after themselves. I lose count of the nails and screws I pick up off the roads. Someone told me Kwik Fit have a team of nail strewers who “seed” the city centre roads most evenings.

      • Scylla

        Oooh, that last bit has a whiff of urban myth about it!

  • tohellwithit

    ‘My obsession with litter is a symptom of my mental illness.’

    Fixed that for you.

  • Uncle Fester

    It’s all down to discipline, responsibility, and lack of shame. I am afraid to say that nearly all the problems around now are a result of the laissez faire attitude of the last decades and the lack of punishment. Tell anyone off for littering , or even just point out their littering and you will nearly always either get a mouthful of abuse, or a punch. If it’s children or young under 18’s you will probably be accused of child abuse. Until the little darlings are up to their necks in rubbish with vermin trying to devour them I doubt if it will change. Of course it could just be a plan to make the UK like a lot of the rest of the world , ie North Africa , Eastern Europe, parts of Asia.
    The other way to attack it would be to fine the suppliers of the cartons/cans/bottles etc etc . At least it might stop this ridiculous need to wander around with a coffee all day. Thankyou America for fast food and drink , you have added to our culture in so many ways…………

    • Andrew Cole

      Whatever happened to the goodwill agreement when McDonalds opened new ‘restaurants’ that they would employ a litter picker. That was part of the goodwill towards local residents concerns. Not seen them for a few years.

  • Lemsip

    More take away outlets, seagulls moving inland and the seagull population going up and generations of young people throwing litter onto the ground because there were were very few public litter bins in the 80’s and early 90’s. They won’t break the habit and now their children are copying them.

    • Andrew Cole

      Very few public litter bins in the 80s and 90s? Where do you get this important fact/stat from. They were smaller I agree and most strapped to lamposts but as an 80s kid I remember bins. They were the things that were overflowing because nobody emptied them. They were everywhere.

      My children are chastised when they drop litter and they only do it by accident (not teenagers yet so watch this space.)

      This is more to do with upbringing me thinks than just a general ‘yoof of today’. You could quite easily add the ‘Parents and yoof of the yoof of today demographic’.

      Same as you can’t say ‘yoof’ have foul mouths, no respect and no manners. Mine do. Some don’t but then neither do their parents.

  • Slater

    Litter picking is the best exercise a human can take, especially when it has become obsessional. It makes you lithe, and isn’t boring like jogging.
    I go out twice a day, concentrating on hedges and edges where jobsworth street cleaners won’t go.
    Best to go with 3 ‘life-long’ bags: one for rubbish, one for glass bottles, and one for plastic bottles and tin cans. Then you can parasite off those who leave their wheelie bins and recycling boxes out on the street.

  • Davidgw

    Last night I was trying to explain to somebody in Athens that the British habit of refuse collection was to leave bags of rubbish on the street only once a week to be collected – but during the week, you were actually expected to keep it inside your flat! Despite the problems, in Athens there are large selective bins to dump rubbish outside at any time and which are emptied every single night! I am astonished frankly, at just how awful rubbish collection in London is.

    • Fraser Bailey

      In most streets in Amsterdam there are large receptacles for black bags (which can contain anything), set in the the ground. The receptacles are lifted out of the ground once a week and emptied into the garbage truck. Equally, there are recycling bins for paper, glass, plastics etc on every street. It’s all much, much better than the UK.

  • Gilbert White

    Local Soviet Commitees could ensure our bearded smurfs scrub our streets after prayers like clockwork?

  • trace9

    Now he’s had to sink to alienating garbage..

  • Adam Schwartz

    I’m also irked by inconsiderate people who make things worse for others. People who leave their trash for others to pick up; explode fireworks late at night; or throw their sneakers on phone and electrical lines. So I fight back. I pick up litter on my walks, call the police when someone is lighting fireworks after dark, and call the phone company and electric companies with the locations where shoes are hanging on the lines. It’s good for my spirit, and everyone benefits. When I pass overhead wires that formerly had unsightly footwear hanging from it, and is now clear, I feel happy.

    • Andrew Cole

      Do you want people to light fireworks before dark? I’m sure there is an argument as to why that would be silly. Do you mean fireworks begin lit all year long apart from the times when they are to be expected? i.e. Bonfire Night?

      The main firework problem comes in the weeks after Bonfire night when the fireworks sellers have to shift their ‘overs’ off cheap and seemingly backhand them to the ‘yoof’.

      • Adam Schwartz

        Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I was referring to the people here in the U.S. who explode fireworks in the days leading up to, and the weeks following, Independence Day (July 4). They light them late into the night, when others are sleeping.

        • Andrew Cole

          They do that here too now. Maybe you’re the lucky ones. We have fireworks going off every night through October, November and December.

          • Adam Schwartz

            That’s sad. I guess the fireworks people think having their fun is more important than their neighbors’ peace.

          • Andrew Cole

            Or their dog’s sanity. Indeed. Never used to happen before the millennium celebrations and since then its a free for all.

  • peter

    Could Toby Young perhaps be the most boring man in England?

  • Andrew Cole

    Toby – Move to a Council Estate. We have a litter picker that comes along the street every morning and early afternoon.

    We also have a caged flatback van that comes along daily to remove any dumped larger goods like TVs, white goods, mattresses or Sofas.

    Do they not do this in private nice street land? If so why not? You should demand you get equal rights as you pay more taxes.

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