Valerie Carson: The highs and lows of tackling littering in communities

Walking for Health Development Officer, Valerie Carson shares why she picks up litter in her community.

Walking with Nature: Litter

For many of us, one of the silver linings during the past year has been the joy of exploring our local area and spending time with nature. In Denny, where I'vé lived for over 3 years, we’re surrounded by lovely greenspaces and a good path network. However, in the early days of lockdown the mental and physical benefits of being outdoors quickly lost their shine due to litter spoiling the view, which I know is an ongoing source of frustration for many right across Scotland.

It’s easy to feel helpless and dispirited when litter seems to be everywhere but we can all do something to make the situation a bit better: for ourselves and others.

To deal with my own frustration, I started filling a shopping bag with litter each morning before work. It became a real source of satisfaction and a highlight of my day: I saw paths gradually becoming clearer and began to recognise and chat to early morning dog walkers. I didn’t realise several others were spending lockdown doing the same thing until much later, with another local resident single-handedly clearing over 100 bags of rubbish while on furlough! 


Our local councillor brought some of us lone litter pickers together ‘virtually’ last summer and we joined forces to form Inspire Denny & Dunipace. As well as picking up litter, we aim to inspire everyone to take ownership of their community, feel a sense of pride and take positive action to take care of where they live. If you’re part of a community paths group you’ll know firsthand that not only do group clean-ups make the place look better but working together towards a shared goal makes people feel more connected to each other and helps build a sense of community as well.

So far, we’ve held several socially distanced litter picks (as Covid-19 restrictions on volunteer activity allow), recruited local schools to take part in the Great British September Clean, adopted a local park, kept the wider community informed of positive developments, and celebrated the achievements of everyone who helps keep our community looking great. Unfortunately, we’ve had to suspend group litter picks during the current lockdown but local residents have continued to pick up litter individually and with their families.

When I asked the others what motivates them to pick up litter they said:

  • Knowing you’re helping to protect nature, wildlife, and the environment

  • Getting fresh air and exercise

  • A feeling of satisfaction and sense of achievement

  • Seeing others enjoy the paths and fields you’ve just cleaned up

  • Chatting to path users – or even sharing a smile in passing

  • Joining forces with like-minded people and feeling more connected to the community

  • Encouraging others to keep our community clean and appreciate it more

  • Sharing responsibility and a sense of ownership of the area

  • Creating a more positive image of our community

The pandemic may prevent us from holding organised group activities at the moment but it needn’t stop us all from making a significant difference on our own doorsteps. The important thing to remember is that every little counts. Even picking up one piece of litter can have an impact: you could prevent a bird, animal or child from being injured by or getting trapped inside that piece of litter, so you might even save a life!

Research has shown if an area looks clean and cared for people are less likely to drop litter or vandalise it (aka broken windows theory), so you could prevent more litter from being dropped there in the future as well.

However, picking up litter is only one tool in the toolbox for reducing litter levels. At Inspire Denny & Dunipace we’re looking forward to working more closely with Falkirk Council, local schools, businesses, and other local residents in the future for a whole-community approach to litter prevention. They also have provided guidance on how communities can tackle litter. 

If you want to take things further yourself, and look at more ways to prevent litter from being dropped in the first place, grab a brew, put up your feet and read this fascinating blog from Off the Ground, Why people litter and what we can do about it. It explains the mystery of what’s going on in some people’s heads when they drop litter, which is crucial in understanding and encouraging behaviour change. 

Using behavioural science to reduce littering: understanding, addressing and solving the problem of litter is another great read and well worth a look if you’re planning a local campaign that you want to be as effective as possible.

For a slightly weightier tome, Code of Practice on Litter & Refuse (Scotland) 2018 sets out the legal responsibilities of various authorities for taking care of litter.

If you’re picking up litter during Covid, please remember to apply FACTS:

  • Face coverings. A mask shouldn’t be necessary while you’re outdoors as long as you keep away from others and don’t waft litter around near your face! But feel free to wear one if you prefer.
  • Avoid crowded places. Stay local and avoid litter picking in crowded or busy areas. 

  • Clean your hands regularly. Wear gloves at all times during your litter pick and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Try to avoid touching your face and use hand gel to clean your hands first if it’s unavoidable.

  • Two meter distance. Stay at least 2m apart from people from other households at all times.

  • Self isolate and book a test if you have symptoms. Don’t take part if you feel unwell and follow the relevant guidance.

For more information about how to litter pick safely and the support available, please see Keep Scotland Beautiful’s Clean Up Scotland webpage