John White: litter is not an urban or rural condition, but a human one.

John White amassed a large collection of discarded energy drink cans while cycling a loop around the north end of Skye

It is exactly 20 miles door to door along the road past Duntulm to Flodigarry and back over above Uig via the Quiraing. A perfect cycle

Seven or eight years ago when I was riding this loop regularly, I started noticing empty cans of a certain energy drink discarded on the roadside. Each week there were more, and I started noticing more. Soon I was concentrating more on the verge than the road ahead.

Sometimes they appeared in clusters, and as I pecked and struggled up the bealach hill, I would ponder, were they perhaps bought each day in Staffin or Uig opened and drank then lobbed out of the vehicle window, meaning the clusters would have a drink time, distance and speed correlation.

Eventually, I got fed up seeing them. So one day, with a plastic box jammed into my bicycle touring trailer, I cycled around with family, friends and a pile of youngsters and picked them all up.

Ninety-six cans of one brand, a few of a supermarket copy, a number of beer cans, the odd half bottle, and an empty bottle of chardonnay, but in the main, energy drinks cans.

We reimagined Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can picture on the decking, took a photograph and recycled them all.

Much has been made recently of people visiting scenic spots, woods and loch sides, setting up camp, presumably having a nice time, but then leaving everything from used disposable barbeques and empty beer cans to their whole encampment. Tents left with folding chairs and sleeping mats, often broken or torn, probably waterlogged, sometimes burnt before abandonment. There is also often evidence of bodily functions during their visit – that’s the politest way I could think of putting it!.

This is the complete antithesis of the leave no trace camping we espouse in outdoor education and try and instill in people we take to the outdoors and wild camp for real, away from the car and the road.

‘Festival mentality’

One explanation I have heard is that it is a festival mentality. Buy a really cheap tent, which is only likely to last a couple of nights, and leave it all at the festival campground knowing that the organisers will clear it up, with some misguided feeling that it will be reused philanthropically or recycled.

Apparently 90 per cent of festival tents end up in landfill.

It might be thought of as an urban-based epidemic and it is perhaps irresistible to blame people from the towns and cities for this despoliation of ‘our’ countryside and poor attitude to the environment.

However, I have been told of a beach on Skye where recently objects from a party were left in the aftermath, and only cleared up after a social media outcry. I have it on good authority that it was local teenagers who left the mess.

During the lockdown, we cycled the Quiraing loop numerous times, and for sure, empty cans appeared on the roadside. I am positive that my energy drink can collection from years back was all from Skye residents, and the cans seen in recent weeks must have been transported by Skye cars or vans. There was no one else here.

It is not just on the land. A gamekeeper friend of mine worked in Ardnamurchan, and one beautiful day on the coast while he was out stalking, he turned his binoculars towards a small creel boat where he watched with disgust as the fisherman threw two plastic oil containers overboard.

Litter is not an urban or rural condition, but a human one. You either clear up after yourself appropriately, or you don’t. It makes no difference where you come from.

One could rant and get angry but to what point. Understanding a problem is a better and more appropriate way of finding a solution.

A reflection of ourselves?

Ecopsychology studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles, and amongst other things tries to understand the emotional connection which may exist. I have read discussions suggesting that the way we treat the environment is a reflection of how we view ourselves.

It is perhaps stretching the point to connect an instance in which someone has left a tent and barbeque debris by Loch Lomond to teenage self-harm, but if a person has little respect for themselves, then it is not a huge assumption to suggest that they may have little respect for anything else, and crucially, vice versa.

Loutish, anti-social behaviour and this disregard for our surroundings will have roots in upbringing, schooling, role modelling and treatment from society. Deep down, there is a reason.

A reason, but not an excuse.

Ironically the desire to go camping in the outdoors, visiting more natural places, is a positive thing, and often regarded as a first step to creating concern for the environment and conservation. This, in turn, can lead to a greater understanding of sustainability and the bigger issues of climate change. There are also, of course, the well-known benefits to individual mental health and wellbeing, it is just that some people will have to learn to stop wrecking places as part of that process.

Our instructor returned from the first post-lockdown canoe session at Loch Mealt (Kilt Rock) with a bin liner full of disposable barbeque and bottles, presumably left by someone in a camper van. Many years ago, national park managers in England would debate, do you provide bins which overflow and need emptying at a cost or not, in the hope that people take their litter home.

An understanding of rationale and guidance versus legal compliance could be made with the wearing of masks or face covering during a pandemic. When scientists and health professionals recommended wearing masks in public there was apparently an approximate five per cent compliance, similarly, when the Scottish Government recommended wearing face coverings indoors, there was again a five per cent compliance. It only rose to 95 per cent when it became mandatory.

Even with something that is understood to protect the health of other people, and perhaps the showing of respect for those other people and oneself, we still need to be told. Unfortunately, it seems that our society needs deterrents as much as reasoning and rationality.

People need to be told, not asked to take their rubbish home.

Whilst it might be suggested that society is to blame, fixing the ills of society is likely to take longer than the fixing of a litter problem, and until there is more education, respect, and understanding, one solution is that of enforcement.

Hence the need for fines, although perhaps some kind of community service with appropriate experiential connections might have a greater long-lasting impact.

The greatest irony is that many of us who would never dream of despoiling a landscape with camping detritus are guilty of adding unnecessarily to unsustainability and climate change. Far subtler than littering but with far greater consequence.