Litter: the solution is in everyone’s hands, Laura Watson

PRIOR to joining the charity, Keep Scotland Beautiful, last year, I spent the better part of the previous decade travelling to various location across Britain and Europe for work. 

I spent my days on cliffs or on boats with a pair of binoculars around my neck and an iPad in my hand. I was literally paid to spend the day at the beach or on the water – looking for and studying marine life. It was the kind of life and work that many dream of but never actually experience. 

So why did I leave?

Well, wherever I went, the impact of humans was never far away; with litter one of the most pervasive. 

It’s on our streets, our beaches and in our parks. 

If you climb a Munro, paddle-board a river or take a walk in the woods, you will find it. 

For some, they just need to look out their window. 

Each piece of litter is a sign that we are failing our country, our nature and ourselves – by not looking after the place we call home.

These days, despite the stunning views across our country, the fact is Scotland isn’t looking so beautiful

It pains me to admit that. I love this country. I love our cities and I love our wild places, but the truth is we have a problem of our own making.

If you watched BBC TV’s Planet Earth II or even the most recent episode of Wild Isles (also on the BBC), then you will have witnessed the destruction that litter has had on nature. 

However, as a marine scientist, my experience of the deadly consequences of litter hasn’t just been through a TV screen. I have witnessed, first-hand, the autopsy of giant whales washed up on a beach, their stomachs full of plastic bags. I have seen animals lucky enough to be saved from entanglement and the bodies of those that weren’t.

The impact of litter on nature has been devastating.

For instance, that Orca that became entangled and washed up in Shetland – I had seen that very Orca with its pod just a few months before. 

In fact, its pod was the first wild Orca that I had ever seen.

All these experiences, both first-hand and through a screen, resulted in me stepping away from a life lived on the ocean towards a role where I could join a team with the single aim of tackling an issue that can only be described as an emergency for both our society and nature.

I now find myself in a position to support and join the amazing individuals and groups across Scotland who all share one goal: to clean up Scotland. 

Many of these people have been taking part in our month-long Spring Clean Scotland, which ends on Monday.

Naysayers will argue that a month-long campaign isn’t going to solve the issue and, regrettably, they are correct.

We didn’t wake up one day and suddenly have a litter emergency. Scotland has had this problem for a long time and it will take time to fix. 

Not just cleaning up the mess we are now in but also encouraging and maintaining behaviour change so that we keep moving forward towards a cleaner and healthier environment for everyone.

For some, they won’t see this issue as their issue. 

They will point at groups, organisations, businesses and even individuals as the cause. 

They will point out the ‘failure of systems’ and may even list all the things they do that excuses them from getting involved. 

But this doesn’t address the problem. The thousands of litter-picking volunteers across Scotland are the ones addressing the problem.

The innovative campaigns and trials run by numerous organisations, and the scientists and data crunchers working hard to understand trends and impacts, are the ones addressing the problem.

Spring Clean Scotland is not just a call to arms to collect litter.

It is about creating a sense of empowered ownership of our wild and not-so-wild places. If our current problem is the consequence of millions of individual acts of carelessness/selfishness, then we can counter it with individual and collective acts of care.

I genuinely believe that if we work together – and keep up the momentum – we can turn the tide and save ourselves and nature from the emergency we have caused.

Laura Watson is a campaigns officer at Keep Scotland Beautiful. She previously worked in a variety of conservation and environment roles, including in the South Adriatic Sea, Wales and the Scottish Highlands. This is a slightly amended version of a blog on the website of Keep Scotland Beautiful – here – published on March 17 2023.

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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