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Putting a stop to littering on campus

bin overflowing

61 bottles, 21 fast food containers, 96 crisp and sweet packets, 47 shopping bags, 8 face masks, a car tyre and a bike. That’s just some of what the University of Cambridge’s Sustainability Team found in a couple of hours picking litter in the area around their office earlier this year.

Since April, the Sustainability Team from University of Cambridge has been busy organising litter picks on campus and capturing data on the types of items they find for Preventing Plastic Pollution’s database.

Many people, including, happily, the younger generations are increasingly conscious of the serious problem of plastic waste in the oceans and the shocking impacts on marine wildlife. What many are less aware of is that 80% of this plastic waste reaches the oceans from our use on land and then travels to the oceans via rivers. This is a global problem affecting UK and European coastal waters. Images of rivers choked with plastic in some parts of the world can be truly shocking. The inputs from European rivers are very significant and also need urgent action, as this article in the science journal Nature shows:

More scientific data on litter in river systems is desperately needed so we can work towards change. On the Preventing Plastic Pollution project, two university teams and 16 other organisations are working to collate and study data on litter as a source of plastic pollution entering rivers in England and France.

Clare Whitelegg, who coordinates the Preventing Plastic Pollution project for The Rivers Trust in East Anglia, explains:

“In the Great Ouse river catchment (which includes the River Cam), The Rivers Trust are working with multiple local and community partners to measure plastic litter entering rivers by collecting data from community litter picks. One of these partners is the Cambridge University Sustainability Team. We are pleased to be working together on this and collecting data on litter in Cambridge.” 

Peter Lumb, from the University of Cambridge Sustainability Team, adds:

“At the University of Cambridge we have taken lots of action on our own estate towards our vision of ‘outstanding environmental sustainability performance’, however as a globally-influential organisation it’s important for us to maximise the positive impact of our actions by looking at local, national and international issues too. Litter is one which might just seem like a blight on the local environment, but with the River Cam on our doorstep we know it has the potential to have a much wider impact by contributing to marine pollution too. That’s why, linked to our own targets to cut the waste we generate, we’re also supporting staff to remove it from our local environment, and working with the Rivers Trust on the important Preventing Plastic Pollution project to better understand the national and international impacts of this issue.”

We know that littering is a significant input of plastic into our rivers and oceans,  which is why it is so important to spread the word that we need to avoid littering as much as possible!

Here are some key actions anyone can take to reduce their impact:

Firstly, use reusables and refill where you can! An easy first step is to get in the habit of bringing a ‘keep cup’ or water bottle with you when you leave home – most outlets now offer a ‘keep cup’ discount! For picnics and lunches, wax wraps or tupperwares can go a long way to reducing litter, while some fruit comes in its own natural biodegradable wrapping!

Secondly and most simply just take any rubbish home! Put it in your picnic bag or backpack and take it home with you to dispose of properly!  Treasure those beautiful natural areas you are visiting and ‘Leave only footprints’ or ‘Leave no trace ‘. This will protect your local and our ocean wildlife by reducing the amount of plastic entering the marine environment!  This includes taking away  dog waste in plastic bags.

Thirdly – Putting plastic waste into the bin is the next best thing you can do! It is important however that waste  goes fully  into the bin. Don’t leave it on top if it is full or overflowing. If litter is left next to a bin which is overflowing, it may not be collected for a while. It is likely to blow away and end up in the river, so this is just as bad as littering.  If the bin is full find another bin, take your litter home with you and, if you can, report the issue to the bin’s owner to ensure it’s emptied promptly.