Clean Up Britain patron Jeremy Paxman speaking at the RWM conference. Photograph: Gareth Simkins Clean Up Britain patron Jeremy Paxman speaking at the RWM conference. Photograph: Gareth Simkins

Jeremy Paxman: ‘We are now a nation of litter louts’

Veteran broadcaster Jeremy Paxman has said that country is being treated “as a rubbish dump”, damning DEFRA’s “utterly useless” performance, as he launched a new campaign to stop littering.

Giving a coruscating speech at the RWM Exhibition in Birmingham this morning, he decried the attitudes and performance of government, business and the general public.

Pre-empting any questions about his knowledge of the waste management sector, he said: “I know nothing and I know everything. I know when you are not doing your job properly.”

“This is a beautiful country and we seem to treat it as a rubbish dump. If you travel anywhere in Britain you see the evidence. It shows what a filthy people we have become,” he told the crowded gathering at the conference’s main theatre.

Some 18 million people admit to chucking litter, with 700,000 plastic bottles littered every day, Paxman said. Addressing the waste problems of developing world, he added: “I used to go to other countries and think ‘What is wrong with these counties? Have they no self-respect?’ Now I ask exactly the same question. We used to be a nation of shopkeepers and we are now a nation of litter louts.”

Aside from a change in the nature of packaging waste, from biodegradable paper to plastic, he put part of the blame on the changing nature of society. “We all lead much more mobile lives,” and so “the sandwich bar has replaced the canteen”. This has led to us having “too little sense of shared space”.

Addressing the increased public awareness of marine litter caused by Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II television series, he feared that is could just be a flash in the pan. Due to the scale of the problem, people may be tempted to ask “why bother?” doing anything, he claimed.

The Clean Up Britain campaign was launched to try to get people to drop litter to change their ways – though it should be the job of government, Paxman argued. He told how former environment minister Thérèse Coffey had set up a working group on litter than met “precisely once”. It produced a “slogan and a few advertisements, then turned over and went to sleep.”

He contrasted the perfunctory action with the NHS’ £23m ‘change for life’ anti-obesity campaign, whereas DEFRA – “frankly a waste of a nameplate” – said it would fund an anti-littering campaign “with whatever it can raise”.

“I want to get them off their comfortable backsides, in their shiny-bottomed trousers” and take action, he insisted.

Paxman soon turned his ire on the rival Keep Britain Tidy campaign, an “even more useless organisation” than DEFRA. Since its foundation, there has been a 500% increase in litter being dropped, he said.

But it is not the campaign, “that has turned Britain into a rubbish bin. It’s us. We need to change behaviour, as sure as hell no-one else is going to do anything.”

He showed a short film about the rubbish-strewn verges of the M40 motorway, which discussed the contract between Highways England and litter-picking firm Connect Plus M25 Ltd. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, Highways England must ensure that motorways and major A-roads are kept free of litter. Despite the firm’s self-evident failure, with dense litter seen right next to its own depot, no financial penalties have been applied, he noted.

“This shambolic management is one of the reasons why Britain’s litter problem isn’t getting any better,” Paxman declared.

While this may be so, he said, “people have to stop littering.”

While changing behaviour can be difficult, it is far from impossible, he said – noting how attitudes to being under the influence of alcohol have altered over the years. Clean Up Britain’s aim is to get “where dropping litter is as socially unacceptable as driving drunk,” said Paxman.

Explaining the results of a pilot campaign, he said that most anti-littering campaigns don’t work. Young people, who are responsible for most litter, “aren’t the least bit bothered” that local government spends £1.6bn a year on picking it up. But they are bothered by images of animals being harmed by it.

“These worked” in changing attitudes, he said, as “they could imagine a creature that they loved suffering.”

Pointing to his dog Derek, who joined him on stage, Paxman said, “Imagine him choking to death – it’s not nice. I have seen animals with bits of litter attached to them” caused by the “idiocy” of the public, he added.

Government policy needs to change too, the campaign backing “digital DRS” – otherwise known as reverse vending machines that pay out when packaging is returned. Paxman also backed a tax on plastic, as “of course manufacturers should have something on their conscience”.

But ultimately, “we are all responsible for the world in which we live. That is my final thought,” he told the conference.

In response to Paxman's comments, Highways England’s head of customer and operational requirements, Freda Rashdi, the country's roads quickly become littered with rubbish from vehicles and unsecured loads.

She said: "Littering is a social problem across the country and we litter pick somewhere on the network every single day. Our priority is to keep our roads safe and well maintained for drivers and neighbouring communities.

“We already collect vast amounts of litter from motorways every year and as part of our support for Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British Spring Clean, we collected an additional 19,450 bags of litter during an eight-week campaign. But we’d much rather be spending our time carrying out other essential maintenance work."

A DEFRA spokesperson said littering blighted communities, spoiled countryside, harmed wildlife, and wasted taxpayers’ money cleaning it up.

She said: “We’ve invested in the national, ‘Keep it, Bin it’ anti-litter campaign in partnership with environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy, and which is supported by some of the biggest names in retail, travel and entertainment, to make littering culturally unacceptable within a generation."

Keep Britain Tidy’s chief Executive Allison Ogden-Newton said that the organisation had “worked tirelessly over the years, pioneering innovative and collaborative campaigns that continue to achieve real change - from educating future generations through our Eco-Schools network to creating the UK’s first recycling solution for plastic waste collected from our coastline.”

“Keep Britain Tidy is a wholly independent charity.! Mr. Paxman is the Patron of a private consultancy firm,” she added.’

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