Litter bins are not all they’re cracked up to be

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I thought I’d post this photograph. It’s of a typical scene at a typical English bus stop. I hope you like it. I do. Stop for a moment, why don’t you, to admire its form and proportion. I’ve recently taken up photography, you see, and I am hunting for things to snap. If all goes well I might make it a profession. It’s early days, though, and no doubt I have much to learn; but I thought this one had something about it – a certain je ne sais quoi, don’t you think?

Anyway, enough sniggering! As I got looking at it, I noticed something odd. Do you? Do you, as it happens, see the empty litter bin? And do you also see the litter on the ground beside the empty litter bin? Excuse the patronising tone, but it’s weird isn’t it; a bit odd. In fact, now I think about it, it reminds me of one of those ‘what’s-wrong-with-this-picture’ psychological tests carried out on young offenders the doctor isn’t too sure about – ‘Oh, go on then, run along you little scamp!’

And then it struck me: the litter is meant to be in the bin, not nuzzling up outside the bin like helpless puppies nuzzling up to their mother. We’re in Oxford, by the way: the city of Arnold’s dreaming spires, the alma mater of Sebastian Flyte before his fall and the place we associate, perhaps above all other places, with England at its most civilised.

It’s almost certainly true that of all the great civic advances made by our Victorian forbears, public sanitation was one of the greatest. In all that public-spirited endeavour, someone no doubt thought municipal litter bins were a good idea and would help solve the age-old problem of where to put the rubbish. (Disclaimer: I have no idea when or how bins got onto the streets).

‘I think I’ve identified a problem,’ said Josiah. (Civic-minded people had that sort of name back then).

‘What problem is that?’ said his friends.

‘Have you noticed how the streets are full of empty takeaway boxes and beer cans and chips?’ said Josiah.

‘Why, yes we have,’ said his friends, nodding in much the same way the friends of Archimedes nodded when he explained the origins of one of his clever inventions.

‘Well,’ continued Josiah, ‘I think the reason there is so much crap in the streets is because the public hasn’t got anywhere to put their empty wrappers and stuff. If we can place box-like receptacles about the town then they will have somewhere to put all their junk. See?’

Most of his friends thought that this was an excellent idea, and that the rationale was even better. Except one. There’s always one. This guy began saying unhelpful things like ‘I’m not sure about that, Jos mate. I think people drop litter because they’re idle, mucky delinquents. If they cared about litter on the streets, they’d take it home with them. Wouldn’t they?’

I’m torn on the issue. On the one hand I can see the logic of putting bins in public places and expecting to see less litter billowing about the streets. But I can also see that something has gone a bit wrong. It is entirely consistent with the argument – that litter is caused by a lack of bins – to say that we have litter where there are no bins because there are no bins. But what about the litter in the places where there most certainly are bins?

Is it possible that public bins are themselves part of the reason we have litter, as illustrated in my photo? Is it possible that public litter bins are sending out a subliminal message that litter is not our problem but someone else’s problem – that is to say the council’s problem? And does this change our attitude to dropping litter or perching it precariously on the summit of a bin so full it looks like the Tower of Babel on carnival night?

I cannot say that my disputation of the value of public bins is motivated particularly by personal animosity; I use them myself and think it quite possible to use bins in a responsible and measured way. Is it so difficult to put litter actually in the bin, or to take it home if the bin is full up or not there? Apparently it is. And the sad thing is that, when I look at this photo of the empty litter bin surrounded by litter on the ground, I see something emblematic of England today, perhaps even something, dare I say it, totemic.

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