Litter illustration by Lucy Russell-Bates

Illustration by Lucy Russell-Bates

Over the last year in particular it has been encouraging to see big brands and retailers making bold statements about their targets to tackle things that we care about with regards to the environment, whether it be supermarkets setting goals to reduce single-use plastic or brands outlining timetables to reach net-zero.

Some of this has been driven by consumer pressure, some by awareness created by well-known figures, and there has been a degree of legislative impetus as well. However, I also want to believe that some of this is coming from companies having both a sense of greater purpose and of collective responsibility.

Emissions reporting obligations

Take carbon footprints for example. Large companies in the UK are now legally obliged to report on their scope 1 & 2 emissions, ie. those that they are directly responsible for, such as emissions from heating and electricity usage and driving company cars and vehicles. However, that obligation doesn’t extend to having to cut those emissions or set targets to offset residual emissions and it certainly doesn’t require them to calculate most of their scope 3 emissions which are often 80% of the total. And yet many are doing just that and are setting ambitious targets to become net zero with regards to all three scopes over the next 10-20 years.


Wouldn’t it be great to see this new-found sense of responsibility extend further, not just to their day-today actions, but for the consequences of those actions? Rather than waiting for legislation to force food and drink companies to cut sugar, salt and fat content, wouldn’t it be good to see brands do more voluntary reporting on the reductions they are making and offsetting some of the damage they are responsible for by donating to diabetes treatment or research into heart disease, much in the same way that they pay for carbon offsets to mitigate against their polluting activities?

Why no litter tax… yet?

In the meantime the government have stepped in and introduced a sugar tax and next year legislation will limit how brands can promote food and drink products in these categories.   However, litter, a problem that affects just about every corner of this country, is not subject to any such intervention at the moment.  But could this be set to change? Stakeholders are currently consulting on extended producer responsibility for packaging and it could become law next year, but a much anticipated plastic bottle deposit scheme is unlikely to come into effect until 2024!

We all know that a lot of product packaging not only doesn’t get recycled, it doesn’t even make it in to the waste stream, but ends up blown around on our streets, fields, in rivers and on beaches, and finally, in the sea. For many years our knowledge and awareness of this was personal, we knew what we saw and we might suspect that it was representative of everywhere else, but we had no idea for sure. In my formative years the best-known offenders would have been cigarette butts and packaging and the infamous chewing gum, stuck on every pavement on the land. Not soft drinks bottles though, because they were glass and were worth something so we took them back to the newsagents to get our deposit back (yes kids, this did used to happen in this country!).

Spot the litter brand

However, now there is information available to identify what types of litter are most common and even which brands are most responsible.  Litter surveys are becoming more and more common, and what we can measure we can act on. We already know thanks to surveys carried out by Break Free From Plastic who the world’s biggest creators of plastic litter are (Coca-Cola, Nestle and Pepsi are the top 3 in case you’re interested). Now organisations like Planet Patrol are gathering data from all over the UK and recording what is found where and can identify the biggest culprits by volume for UK litter.

Credit: 2020 Litter Report by Planet Patrol

Litter-pickers use their app to photograph and identify litter as they find it and geo-locators automatically show where it has been picked up. In their latest report they identify the UK’s top brands for litter (along with our top 3 plastic villains it includes brands like Budweiser, McDonalds, Walkers and Cadbury’s). So we now have evidence to back-up what we instinctively felt.

What’s our litter-print?

With this data comes opportunity. Much in the way that companies have been given the data and tools with which to calculate their carbon footprint, they could now start to estimate their litter-print. And from there we know from our carbon experience targets can be set for reduction and then offsetting. What brand wouldn’t want to get itself off the top of the leaderboard for litter found around the country? Brands like Walkers might argue that their scheme to get crisp packets collected and recycled is part of this effort, but it’s doing nothing to reduce litter volumes: the people who collect their crisp packets for recycling are not the people dropping crisp packets on the road.

The Planet Patrol app allows you to identify litter when you find it and it shows up on a map. This can dates back to 1985 (the brand hasn’t been around since then)

And how might offsetting work? The argument is often made that brands cannot take responsibility for the thoughtless actions of those that purchase their products, and yet, going back to carbon emissions, that’s exactly what we are expecting brands to do there, so why not for litter? So encouraging brands whose products are found lying around in greatest volumes to fund more litter bins and more resources to collect, sort and recycle the contents perhaps? Or funding more community litter picks with free kit and sponsorship packs. Or investing money into developing the infrastructure for returnable and re-usable packaging. We already know that returnable bottles work to reduce drinks litter, and now brands like Burger King are trialling re-usable burger boxes in partnership with Terracycle.

Brands taking responsibility

All these things would already be possible if more brands took responsibility as part of their purpose-driven activities. And if they don’t perhaps they will soon need to under upcoming legislation, so isn’t it time they got ahead of the curve?

In the meantime, if you’d like to contribute to the data, why not download the Planet Patrol app and take a look at their latest UK report…it makes fascinating reading.

Neil Russell-Bates, Hilltop Sustainability

See my original Linkedin article here.

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