Opinion: Protecting the world’s best beach - and the planet!

Chief Correspondent for channel 4 news, Alex Thomson''w140812a
Chief Correspondent for channel 4 news, Alex Thomson''w140812a

As a loyal employee of ITN let me first salute the BBC. In particular Sir David Attenborough’s recent Blue Planet 2 series.

Whatever else Dave’s latest ratings-buster achieved, it has put plastic on the agenda of thousands, surely millions of us. It has woken many of us up to the fact that, lovely as Britain is, it’s disfigured by the ever growing blight of litter. Our roadsides are an international affront, an obscenity.

5/8/08    Members of the public enjoying themselves on the main  beach next to  the entrance  to Whitby harbour yesterday(tues) as sewage was being pumped into the harbour from a problem at the Endeavour Wharf pumping station.

5/8/08 Members of the public enjoying themselves on the main beach next to the entrance to Whitby harbour yesterday(tues) as sewage was being pumped into the harbour from a problem at the Endeavour Wharf pumping station.

Something has gone wrong.

The years of well-meaning campaigns from the likes of Keep Britain Tidy have clearly failed. The gobsmacker of modern Britain is this: people think it’s weirder to stop and pick up litter, than it is to drop it. Wha????

Worse, from psychologists to sociologists we have yet to penetrate why the human brain, once inside a motor vehicle, suddenly perceives the outside world as an infinite skip. Why?

And it is lethal. Litter kills.

They say dog mess is dangerous and I applaud the Whitby Gazette’s efforts to combat it, but I’ve yet to hear of anybody dying of it.

Litter though is demonstrably lethal. It was a key accelerant in both the Valley Parade and King’s Cross fires in which scores of people perished. Meanwhile those Scarborough Council figures published in the Gazette last week on flytipping are staggering.

And in Whitby itself it seems to take the SAS to clean our beach – The World’s Best Beach (WBB) in my opinion (which makes it a fact). I refer of course to the redoubtable Surfers Against Sewage coming campaign.

And it seems ever more hopeless and beyond our reach to do anything.

Doesn’t it?

Except it isn’t. Here’s the good news. We can change this. The solution is there and it’s staring us in the face but needs action from central, regional and local governments and from the legions of us who actually want to do something, to act, to fight against it.

When I was a lad and spent the summer swimming on the WBB I loved it, but couldn’t help noticing that I had bouts of stomach upsets and occasional boils. It seems incredible now, but we used to play with washed up syringes as free water pistols!

In those days they pumped raw sewage into the Bay from Sandsend. And whaddya know? We got it sorted as a society. It’s over. I still swim here. But no noxious skin eruptions, no upset stomach and no syringes washed up.

We. Can. Change. Things.

And change entire patterns of behaviour too and remarkably fast. How do we know? Because of smoking and drink-driving. Just a generation back it was unthinkable that you could ban smoking in pubs and public and drink driving was, if not exactly encouraged, not socially unacceptable as it is now. Take smoking. The unthinkable happened almost overnight - lighting up from pubs to stations simply stopped and with barely a murmur of dissent.

Because of joined up action: education, coercion and publicity. The same approach might transform our litter disaster along with another element - incentives. The education element - particularly in schools - is obvious.

Coercion needs urgent action. Fines of £100 for littering are as absurd as they are ineffective. Penalties for fly-tipping, ditto. Why aren’t convicted fly tippers given both a fine with deterrence value and the bill for the council clean-up?

But coercion must move with publicity and encouragement or it will not work. The media have a huge role. This paper’s campaign on plastics is seizing the public mood on littering and dog mess and is welcomed. But why is my Gazette delivered to Essex wrapped in single-use plastic instead of degradable/ recyclable brown paper?

Then come the incentives - and here the UK is completely asleep. Would plastic bottles and cans really pile up if each one carries a deposit value? How can this have been a part of life in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia (of course) and even parts of the US - yet still remain a distant dream in filthy old UK? With all that, we can be in a different place. Then come ourselves. Individuals. We can all just, well, pick it up now and again. Take a bag when you go for a walk. It is weirdly therapeutic.

Advocating actually challenging a litterbug is not my place. Personally I do though, with a polite: “... I’m sorry Sir but I think you just dropped something ..”

It has never caused a problem. I like to kid myself it might just make them think, next time.

There are eight million dogs or thereabouts in the UK. Two walks a day is 16 million daily strolls. If every dog owner picked up one item of litter that’s 112 million bits of rubbish a week, gone. And many already do as well as bagging the mess of course.

And sometimes the effects are lasting. Some years back The Ravine at Happy Valley was a depressing litter-filled mess.

My sons and I spent a happy morning living the holiday dream, bagging it up. That was over a decade ago and it’s never come back as bad - or hadn’t last time I looked. Litter attracts litter but you can break the cycle.

Another decade on we will see improved recycling; deposit incentive schemes - and one hopes, meaningful legal penalties. So there is much to be optimistic about and zero cause for despair. We’re in a mess but the way out is inevitable. There simply is no choice. Meantime, pick something up and keep the WBB the WBB!