The Real Cost of Littering

Kath Heiman — 18 July 2019
Does it really take monetary rewards and legal sanctions for folks to start using bins? It’s time us overlanders took responsibility for our rubbish.

While 10 cent bottle recycling has been around in South Australia for as long as I can remember, in New South Wales and the ACT it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. And in the last few months since its introduction, I’ve already seen a reduction in the amount of litter left along verges near my home. Collecting bottles and cans and taking them to our local recycling centre is also proving to be a real winner with our eight year old who earns 50 per cent of all refunds as pocket-money – while the other 50 per cent is put into her bank account and towards her future. Taking responsibility for sorting the bottles, cans and containers, packing them for transport and then depositing them, is demonstrating to her the quantifiable value of recycling.

Then again, I would hope that we’ve raised her well enough so that the mantra ‘renew, re-use, recycle’ had already taken hold in her developing psyche, even before this new pocket-money making opportunity arose. From trips to the local Op Shop to buy clothes and toys that would otherwise be beyond her tiny budget; to planting out her little veggie patch into raised beds made from pine pallets; to helping us turn an ex-military 1989 6x6 Land Rover Perentie into a go-anywhere mobile home: in our place it’s often the case that ‘everything old is new again’.  

But a recent drive along the Hay Plain and into the Riverina served as a clear reminder that – as a community – we appear to be as careless with our day-to-day waste as we ever were. It’s true that, when travelling in the bush, a growth in the numbers of discarded cans and bottles by the roadside has always been a common indicator that a pocket of civilisation is nearby.  ‘Back in the day’ – when the national psyche was less attuned to the issue of environmental protection – this state of affairs was ‘just the way things were.’ But times have changed. Haven’t they?  

If times have changed, then it really makes me wonder what possesses someone to open their car window and jettison their litter into someone (or something) else’s patch, whether it’s used bottles, food wrappers, food scraps or cigarette packets. If there was space for the product and its packaging inside the vehicle when it was bought, then there’s surely still space for it once it’s served its immediate purpose.  

If times haven’t changed, then it makes me very sad. It suggests that, as a nation, we aren’t yet prepared to take even those easy, day-to-day opportunities, to ‘do the right thing’ and put our waste in the bin. Certainly, when there’s the prospect of 10 cents a bottle – combined with a convenient recycling station within spitting distance of our homes – then yes – many of us will take the effort to dispose of our waste responsibly. Otherwise, it looks like a lot us simply can’t be arsed.  

So, rubbish chucked from vehicles ends up on the verge. And there it lies, to become a nuisance, or worse, within the local environment. Plastics can be toxic to flora and fauna, food litter draws birds and animals (including native species) to roadsides where they risk becoming roadkill, and hungry animals like wild pigs feed on scraps that may contain animal byproducts that harbour exotic diseases like foot and mouth disease or African swine fever.  

Does this happen often? I don’t know. But it’s enough of a concern in Tasmania, for example, that there’s a state-wide campaign to discourage drivers from littering the roadside where carrion eaters like Tassie Devils are drawn to the easy-pickings. And campers around the Mallee were recently urged to dispose of their meat scraps carefully so as to protect our agriculture, economy and natural environment from the threat of introduced animal diseases (Sunraysia Daily, 17 Apr 2019). 

It would be a shame if habitat conservation relied on monetary inducements like ‘cash for cans’ or the risk of legal sanctions for doing the wrong thing. Even the most insignificant looking stretches of country support life forms that make the place tick – from apex predators like wedge-tailed eagles, to humble organisms that keep the soil fertile. And I’m sure I’m not the only one keen to keep Australia’s iconic landscapes intact for the next generation of overlanders.  

When it comes to efforts to ‘Keep Australia Beautiful’, every piece of litter counts.


she'll be right litter opinion editorial