Why are our National Parks full of rubbish?

  • Contributor information: CNP


“An indescribable heap of filthy paper, empty fruit tins, broken bottles, cigarette and chocolate wrappers, matchboxes, cigarette ends and other litter.” This was how the Sheffield Daily Telegraph described what local schoolchildren, encouraged by the Sheffield & Peak District branch of what was then called the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE), had collected from Stanage in the Peak District one Bank Holiday. That particular litter pick took place in 1929.

Almost a century later it’s still happening at this iconic location, except now Stanage is in a National Park. So why? It’s tempting to blame it on a new, largely urban audience, unaware or untutored in how to behave in the countryside. But that’s too simplistic.

As the 1929 example shows, throwing rubbish around the British countryside has been going on well before National Parks were established; and despite the efforts of the Keep Britain Tidy group, CPRE’s Stop the Drop campaign and Great British Beach Clean, as well as the Countryside Code and TV Wombles, people seem intent on despoiling the very places they apparently come to enjoy.

Some of it must be down to a basic lack of environmental awareness and education, as well as an absence of personal responsibility and good citizenship that surely must start in the home and at school? But the uncomfortable truth is that there are plenty of people who simply don’t seem to care.

We have become a materialistic and selfish society, all too happy to throw things out and let someone else pick up the mess. Recently and redolent of too many music festivals, that seems to include whole tents and their contents; but it’s a problem that extends further up the scale to fly-tipping and industrial pollution. However, perhaps the most insidious current threat to National Parks is from a small foil box packed with flammable charcoal – single-use disposable barbecues – which have led to a string of damaging fires such as those in the Peak District and the New Forest.

But litter doesn’t just make the countryside look ugly, start fires and prove a hazard for wildlife and farm animals. Picking up other people’s rubbish costs time and money and is an unpleasant task. As lockdown began to ease in June, Lake District National Park Authority (NPA) staff collected over 300 bags of rubbish in a single weekend, while a North York Moors NPA team fished 20 bags of rubbish from a single waterway. In 2019 alone, the Peak District NPA spent £37,000 on removing litter, funds which could have otherwise supported, for instance, a ranger’s post.

So how do we stop the litter louts?

1. Educate, engage, encourage

Councils already have the power to issue £150 on-the-spot fines for littering, but resources are scarce and litter enforcement is rarely a priority. Instead, NPAs must continue to spread messages about responsible visiting through local codes of conduct such as #PeakDistrictProud and Dartmoor’s #LoveMoorLife, which includes on-the-spot rewards from rangers for those taking their rubbish home with them.

2. Facilitate, collaborate

Let’s not forget that there are lots of people who continue to do the right thing. Locals, landowners, volunteers and outdoor enthusiasts alike often pick up other people’s litter, and perhaps there’s more we can do to empower and support them.

3. Behavioural change – an all-important nudge

Experts say that the best chance of changing people’s behaviour for the better is not to tell them what they can’t do but to coerce and incentivise them so they can. Like the successful 5p shopping bag charge, a deposit return scheme for items commonly thrown away, such as bottles and packaging, may help change people’s behaviour – but it must come from Government, be properly resourced and lasting. We’re still waiting for the deposit return scheme for drinks containers promised in 2018.

4. The polluter must pay

As well as penalising irresponsible consumers it’s time to make those producing and selling the throw-away plastic bottles, pop-up tents and disposable barbecues also liable, at least in part, for the clean-up costs. Currently 90% of all Britain’s waste clean-up costs (£1 billion in 2015) fall on the taxpayer, rather than on the manufacturers or fast food outlets making or peddling the throw-away items.

Ultimately, though, littering our National Parks and other beauty spots on such a scale as we’ve seen recently is an appalling reflection on us as a society and the regard we appear to hold for landscape, wildlife and the wider environment. It’s surely time to demand something better?


Andrew McCloy is chair of the Peak District National Park, andrew.mccloy@peakdistrict.gov.uk

A version of this blog first appeared on Gritstone Coop’s website.