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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.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.


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