How about charging dog owners £100 for a licence to cover the costs of poo?

<span>A Yorkshire terrier. The numbers of dogs in the UK has almost doubled since 2011.</span><span>Photograph: Liliboas/Getty Images</span>
A Yorkshire terrier. The numbers of dogs in the UK has almost doubled since 2011.Photograph: Liliboas/Getty Images

An unlikely folk hero has emerged in the Venice beach area of Los Angeles. Their identity is unknown, but their popularity is down to their homemade flags on cocktail sticks stuck into piles of dog faeces with messages like “Lazy. Pick. Up. Your. Dog. Poo”. The message is going down well. “I’m a big fan,” said one local. “No one wants to see a dog poop everywhere.”

These are the exact tactics that were used in Britain back in the 1980s, when dog faeces on the streets first began to be seen as unacceptable. Campaigners stuck little flags with similar messages aimed at getting dog poo off streets and public play areas. In many ways it was a successful campaign. There’s now widespread consciousness of the dangers to children of toxocara disease caused by accidentally ingesting excrement via their hands. And there are very few who would put up a public defence that a faeces-littered pavement is a sign of the healthy freedom of its citizens.

But in spite of reaching this level of public awareness, we still have an escalating problem of dog mess. Not only does the problem in public places still exist, but some of the strategies for disposing of it have spawned a whole set of new problems: bagged-up mess left lying about on the streets, overflowing bins or, even more maddeningly, bags of faeces hanging on trees.

Such piles have far from disappeared from our streets, parks, nature reserves and beaches. There remains a hard core of refuseniks, like the elderly gent who walks his dog in our street after dark and never “scoops the poop”.

Meanwhile, many unbagged heaps are the gift of dog walkers who conveniently “miss” the event, either because they’re walking too many dogs at the same time or they’re immersed in conversations or on phones. I’m sceptical about how genuine these oversights are. More likely, these are the soft-core refuseniks who know they ought to pick up but can’t be bothered. On the occasions I’ve pointed this out to the owners, I’ve been met with responses that range from outright aggression to a half-hearted search in an area from which the dog is long departed and whose offering cannot immediately be found.

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Part of the problem is the sheer number of dogs. There are now an estimated 13 million in the UK. The numbers have pretty much doubled since 2011 when there were 7.6 million. That means an awful lot of faeces and, probably even more serious than what’s left on the streets, there is the problem that there are no environmentally harmless ways of disposing of “waste” from all those dogs. Most waste bags are not truly biodegradable and, while compostable bags are available, there is currently no real way of safely composting dog waste. It cannot be added to domestic compost without extensive supervision. Nor can it be disposed of down toilets as there is a real risk of diseases entering the drinking system this way. The vast majority goes, via public bins, to landfill where it will eventually anaerobically degrade creating methane gas. As for the impact of dogs on the wider environment, some have suggested that due to their meat-based diet and its effect on agricultural production, the average dog creates the equivalent CO2 emissions over its lifetime as a medium-sized SUV.

Dog owners don’t want to have conversations about the difficulties dogs can create for society or the environment more widely. It’s always other “bad” owners who are responsible – for dog mess, for delinquent dogs, for irresponsible disposal of dog bags. But as a non-dog owner, I do wonder why there isn’t more collective responsibility?

Why, for example, don’t dog owners occasionally pick up the mess which someone else’s dog has left? And why is there not more support for the return of the dog licence? If that was restored at the cost of say £100 a year, it would at least make a significant contribution to the public purse. Importantly, it would recognise that dogs do have an impact in our shared social space.

Ros Coward is professor emerita of journalism at Roehampton University