Litter – How Hard Can It Be?


We have seen recently the effects of plastic waste on the oceans and the hazard it poses to marine life. Across the Borough we seem to be fighting a losing battle against litter, much of it plastic, strewn in roadside verges and blowing in the wind. It might help if some people could resist the temptation to throw empty food wrappings out of their vehicle windows as they speed through the Penistone area. But how did we get into this mess with plastics which, unlike other forms of packaging such as paper or cardboard, do not rot away easily

Plastic has been around for many years and one of the earliest precursors was natural rubber after Thos. Hancock and Chas. Goodyear developed a method of processing raw latex. Gutta Percha, used in early golf balls came along in 1843 and in 1845 was used for insulating undersea telegraph cables. Bakelite was the first wholly synthetic plastic made from phenol and formaldehyde in 1907, used in electrical appliances and even jewellery. Cellophane was first manufactured in 1912 and vinyl, used for records, in 1932 whilst high density polyethylene bottles started to replace glass in the 1960s.

Polyethylene bottles are probably one of the biggest blights on our environment with over 5 billion disposed of in the UK every year. There are 9 billion plastic bags thrown out each year and these represent a cumulative problem as they have a biodegradable period of 1,000 years compared to one month for the paper equivalent. Some readers will be old enough to remember when paper bags were the norm and I recall some shops, like Marks & Spencer, issuing carrier bags made from brown kraft paper with string handles. Of course these were easily disposed of when most people had open fires.

Recycling is one method of plastic disposal although that only works when people choose not to take the easy option of leaving it on the highway. Some plastic can be burnt but other types simply melt and leave a sticky residue on the grate and in the ash-pan. The recent introduction of a charge for single use carrier bags issued by supermarkets was a welcome step towards tackling this issue but we need to do more. Collecting litter and fly-tipping costs a local authority the size of Barnsley around £2 million every year, money which could be put to much better use especially when public finances are under pressure. Locally all we can do is encourage responsible disposal but perhaps the best long-term solution would be to manufacture less plastic and find a better alternative. How hard can it be?

First published in the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living March 2017