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.