Throughout the last 15 months, there have been regular reports of widespread, and sometimes mass, littering. In the summer and autumn of 2020, and then again in the spring and early summer of 2021, many media outlets featured stories about waste left on the UK’s beaches and in our wilder or more rural areas. Legal restrictions on indoor mixing, graduated opening of the accommodation sector, and a newfound unease about infection led to far higher numbers going for day trips in the outdoors, picnicking and (wild) camping. Unfortunately, many people seemed to be unaware of the need to leave nothing behind. In Scotland, piles of rubbish were left on the shores of lochs, in woods, and on mountain slopes. Human waste wasn’t always properly disposed of. The default response to these stories was outrage and disgust – those responsible were uniformly described in Daily Mail language as litter louts, yobs, and so on. We had clearly identified the villains of the piece.
Then a new kind of story started to appear (or perhaps new chapters were added to the old stories). Some of these celebrated the efforts of the little man, battling the litter plague. Individuals were picking up discarded bottles, cans, plastic and polystyrene while out walking their dogs. Local community groups got together to clear away the debris and return our treasured countryside to its pristine state. Artists picked up trash and turned it into treasure. Now, we had some heroes.
Throughout, I took pictures that captured this clear and simple narrative of heroes and villains. But over time I became aware of a more ambiguous character inserting itself into the storyline.
It started with dog-poo bags: filled, tied, and neatly placed on a wall, hung from a fence post or flung, dangling from the branches of a tree.
Then there was a bag of what looked like the remains of a picnic – cans and bottles and food wrappers – carefully gathered into a plastic carrier bag (an 10p one, with sturdy handles) and left hanging from a style by a reservoir in the Ochills.
Then, there were the coffee cups, cans and bottles, carefully placed on benches or walls – not thrown into the undergrowth or tossed to the side of a path, but neatly arranged.
Perhaps most spectacular of all was the abandoned tent, whose owner had carefully tidied all the food and drinks packaging away, putting some into plastic carrier bags and when these were full at least making sure everything was in the tent and that the tent was (mostly) zipped shut. Before leaving the tent in the woods.
Who are these hybrids, these people that combine the tidying instinct of our litter-picking heroes with the disregard for the environment of our littering villains? Tidy littering suggests people who sense that leaving non-biodegradable trash in our forests and waterways is … if not a bad thing, at least unsightly. But tidy litter also suggests people who know this and yet leave it anyway. Deliberate vandalism?