After studying zoology at university Jonathan was involved in ornithological research and conservation for a number of years in France, Scotland and West Africa. Subsequently he has spent most of his career as an environmental consultant, assisting industry in managing its environmental impacts. Wildlife, particularly insects, remain his first love however and he is a keen butterfly and moth recorder and an active member of the North East England Branch of Butterfly Conservation.
Jonathan’s previous guest blogs here can be seen here.
It is something we have all experienced: you are walking in the countryside enjoying the birdsong, the wildflowers and the hum of insects in the sunshine when, suddenly, your idyll is jolted by a small mountain of garbage confronting you. A pile of builder’s rubble, some fridges, a few gas cylinders, a roll of carpet or two and a forlorn old sofa now smother the wildflowers that might once have grown in the space you are looking at. You have come across a case of fly-tipping and it is a widespread and seemingly increasing problem. Around a million incidents were reported by Local Authorities in England in 2019/20 (fly-tips dealt with by the Environment Agency and those cleaned up by private citizens are not included in this figure). Although changes in reporting methods mean that data from prior to 2019/20 are not directly comparable, previous years’ data show a steady year on year increase during the past decade. These figures relate to England but the other parts of the UK also suffer from the problem.
Fly-tipping incidents cover a wide range, from the householder who thinks it OK to tip his lawn- cuttings over his boundary onto the adjacent land, up to large-scale, illegal tipping operations by criminal gangs, but the majority of cases involve household waste and are in the ‘small van load’ to ‘car boot load’ scale. The problem may be most acute in or close to major conurbations (London has by far the worst rate of cases per capita in the country) but nowhere is immune and many a country lane is seen by someone as an ideal place to dump their junk.
How much should we care about this? There are lots of environmental issues facing us – many of which are regularly featured on this blog – and alongside problems like habitat loss, climate change and illegal killing of wildlife, perhaps fly-tipping is unimportant and just an aesthetic issue? Certainly ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ as a slogan sounds very middle class and sub-urban and doesn’t set the pulse racing in the same way as, say, ‘Extinction Rebellion’. Nevertheless, I don’t think that fly-tipping is a trivial problem. First, it costs a huge amount of money to clear it up and that cost is borne by us, the taxpayers, but it is not just a matter of cost.
Licensed landfill sites and other waste disposal facilities are required to implement a variety of measures to manage environmental impacts but no such pollution abatement is applied to fly-tipped waste. Oils and other polluting liquids can leach straight into the soil and from there into ground and surface waters; powerful greenhouse gases can be emitted to the atmosphere from carelessly dumped fridges; plastic blows across the countryside and ends up in our rivers and ultimately the sea. Small mammals become trapped inside bottles and other containers and other wildlife may be variously choked, smothered or entangled. Fly-tipping hot-spots can become significant sources of environmental pollution.
Perhaps, though, the most depressing thing about this is what it tells us about ourselves as a society. The readership of this blog is characterised by a love of wildlife and a commitment to fighting against the different pressures that threaten it, but we should be wary of assuming that everyone shares our passion. Many people are concerned about the build-up of trash in the environment, as evidenced by all the people who regularly participate in beach cleans and the like, but the ubiquity of fly-tipping and its dirty and even more widespread little brother, littering, tells us that there are many others who don’t care at all. Such attitudes presumably reflect a general indifference to the environment: it seems very doubtful that the person who unthinkingly throws his hamburger wrapper from his car window is particularly bothered about the fate of the hen harrier or the hedgehog either.
Of course, to bring about change does not mean we need to get agreement or support from everyone. Fly-tipping and many other environmental problems can be addressed in part by ensuring effective enforcement of the law. This means that we need to target politicians and other key decision makers but we must remember that politicians are most likely to act when they believe there are votes in it and so we do also need to get a lot more people to love the environment and to care about the many ways in which we damage it.