‘I’ve picked up 1.2m cigarette butts!’: five litter loathers who refuse to let it lie

On every street in Britain, you’re likely to find a piece of litter. It is estimated that 2m pieces of rubbish are dropped in the UK every day, with 48% of people admitting to littering. Rubbish is not just a nuisance to look at, it can also endanger plants and animals, as well as indirectly contribute to the climate crisis. About £1bn is spent by local authorities every year to clean up this mess, and, despite the introduction of charges for single-use plastic bags and fines for littering that range from £150 to £2,500, our habits of throwing waste anywhere but into a bin continue.

Yet, while there are litterers among us, there are also people taking matters into their own hands. Volunteers across the UK are using their free time to fight the rising tide of waste. We spoke to some of these litter battlers on the life-changing effects of creating clean streets and waterways.

‘I’ve picked up 1.2m cigarette butts to date’

Jason Alexander, 52

In a converted shipping container in Woodbridge, Suffolk, Jason Alexander has amassed more than 400 pieces of litter. Collected during thousands of litter picks, his items include crisp packets, drink cans, surgical sutures and washing-up bottles, dating from 1920 to 1999. It all forms part of his Vintage Litter Museum, a pop-up aiming to highlight the longevity of our waste.

“People become blind to infographics and messaging on packaging telling you not to litter on the streets – it doesn’t work,” he says. “This museum is a way to confront people and bring home how bad the problem really is.”

Before rubbish became his calling, Alexander built wildlife cameras. In 2014, he set himself a challenge to photograph 100 sunrises in a year, but during his early morning starts he became aware of more than just the skies. “I’d be clearing the ground in front of me to prepare for my shots and I was astounded by the amount of waste there was,” he says. “I was litter-blind, and once I noticed it, I had to start cleaning.”

He set up a website, Rubbish Walks, to document his increasingly frequent litter picks and soon built a following keen to take part in community cleanups. “While we do organise events, we’re really about creating communities that don’t litter, rather than tidying up after them,” he says. “We want to start conversations to show people that we have a moral obligation to tackle this problem. We can’t rely on other people to make it better.”

For his own part, Alexander says he takes part in hundreds of litter picks each year, and even takes a travel litter-picker on holiday with him – most recently to the beach in Mauritius. “Sometimes I’ll do the treble,” he says. “That’s a river, beach and street clean all in a day.”

While it is satisfying to clear up an area, sometimes it can feel as if the problem is insurmountable. “I’ve picked up 1.2m cigarette butts to date – I’ve counted them all,” he says. “It can feel like we’re not making a dent but can you imagine the state the country would be in if there weren’t people like us cleaning up regularly?”

It is future generations that ultimately hold the key to meaningful change, says Alexander. And he hopes his Vintage Litter Museum will become a touring exhibit to take to schools and colleges around the country. “We need to educate young people to understand that things like disposable vapes don’t just disappear, they will be here for centuries to come,” he says. “Once they see it, they won’t be litter-blind, either.”

‘I was worried I’d be the laughing stock of the town’

Martin Burrows, 57

For the past 13 years, Martin Burrows has been working as a long-distance HGV driver. Spending up to five nights a week on the road can be a lonely business, leaving him with plenty of time to notice his surroundings. “I kept seeing rubbish everywhere and it was getting on my nerves. I decided I had to do something about it,” he says. “I stopped in a layby one day, got a bin bag out and started picking up the rubbish. Once I was done, I felt so much better. The satisfaction of just clearing a small area was enormous.”

Before his time on the road, Burrows had spent more than two decades in the army, working as a mechanical transport driver throughout Europe and on tours in Afghanistan and what was Yugoslavia. As a civilian, he was diagnosed with PTSD, and he had a mental health crisis in 2017. “I had been doing a lot of fundraising for Help for Heroes, and I met a guy there who used to make models of trains and planes to distract himself from his PTSD thoughts,” he says. “Once I began to clear rubbish from the roadside, I realised it was doing the same thing to help with my own mind.”

By 2019, Burrows was regularly using his downtime on the road to clear up rubbish. A passerby encouraged him to set up a Facebook group, which he called Truckers Cleaning Up Britain. “I was worried I’d be the laughing stock of my town for putting videos and photos up of me cleaning, but people started to join,” he says. “I was amazed. The local council stepped in and gave me litter-picking supplies and we’re up to almost 3,000 members now.”

Since truckers are so often on the move, the Facebook page acts as a means of raising awareness rather than a forum for organising cleanups. Burrows wanted to show that it’s not just drivers who create roadside litter: “We need to get back our ‘king of the road’ status. Since we so often sleep at the roadside, we’re the last people who want mess there – it would be like fouling up your own garden.”

Burrows’ group has run a campaign to encourage truckers to stop tossing out “Driver Tizer” – bottles of urine – and instead use reusable containers, as well as urging local councils to put up more signage and enforce fines. “Social media groups are amazing for getting people together to volunteer and save council tax money that can be better spent elsewhere.”

Although he has found everything from cash to human excrement on his litter picks, Burrows isn’t deterred. “I’ve always said I’d never turn into an environmentalist, but I am one now,” he laughs. “I’ll carry on as long as I can keep walking and bending down, since the joy in cleaning up is still there.”

‘I’ve seen the best and worst of humanity’

Lizzie Carr, 36

After Lizzie Carr was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago, she discovered paddleboarding. Recovering from radiotherapy treatments at her dad’s house on one of the Isles of Scilly, she would take herself to the beach and use the exercise to regain her fitness, as well as boost her mental health. On returning to her London home, she took her paddleboard out along Regent’s Canal, where she started to notice other effects.

“When you’re on the water, you’re in nature and everything is magnified. I saw litter everywhere and wildlife constantly entangled in it,” she says. “It was heartbreaking. I had been using the waterways as an escape, but I ended up feeling more depressed.”

The seeds of a new purpose had been planted. By 2016, Carr had left her job at a creative agency and decided to paddleboard the length of England’s waterways, plotting each piece of plastic she found. “I wanted to make the amount of waste in our water more tangible,” she says. “It showed me the best and worst of humanity: people were cheering me on, while I was also cataloguing the damage they had done to the environment.”

Carr subsequently retraced her steps to dispose of the waste she had found, all while posting on social media with #PlasticPatrol. “I had been feeling quite isolated, like no one was interested in our waterways, but the social media support was huge,” she says. “My parents probably thought I was going through an early midlife crisis after my diagnosis but I realised I had found my people and my purpose.”

That same year, Carr founded the not-for-profit organisation Planet Patrol, with the aim of organising global community cleanups and encouraging citizen science to catalogue the health of our waterways. “We’ve now logged more than 500,000 pieces of litter in 113 countries and the volunteer base has grown massively,” she says. “I’ve found everything from sex toys to handbags and even a gun in the canals. We’re not seeing plastic production and waste reduce but more people are getting involved to get rid of it, which is helping.”

Ultimately, major improvements can only come from legislation, says Carr, such as the long-awaited deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, more accountability for producers and comprehensive water quality testing. “I feel grateful for the journey I’ve been on, but I don’t want to be an activist forever,” she says. “Hopefully, one day this role will be redundant.”

‘Young people are part of the solution’

Ben Thornbury, 18

The market town of Malmesbury – “England’s oldest borough” – boasts a 12th-century abbey, picturesque hilltop houses and views of the Cotswolds. For teenager Ben Thornbury, though, what he sees in his home town is mostly waste.

Six years ago, Thornbury began chatting to his 64-year-old neighbour Julie over the fence and the pair decided to start helping out the local community by cutting back hedges, mowing lawns and tidying litter. “The two of us went in Julie’s car, along with my younger brother Josh, and helped clear someone’s drive first,” he says. “I posted it online and everyone loved it.” The community outings soon became weekly, and Thornbury found himself increasingly focused on the issue of litter.

“After a sunny weekend, you would have areas by the river just covered in rubbish and disposable BBQs and it was horrible to look at,” he says. “It felt really good to be able to make a difference and clear up these beautiful spots, even though my parents weren’t impressed with me bringing the bin bags home to sit in the driveway to await collection!”

Thankfully, the local council agreed that Thornbury could leave his bags by the public bins, and his grassroots movement began to grow. “We’ve got more than 400 people on our Facebook group now and lots come on litter picks every week, no matter the weather,” he says. “One of my main motivations is to show that it’s not just us young people littering – we are part of the solution, too.”

He has placed signs on lamp-posts to raise awareness, and his group of activists has become well-known, not least since Thornbury himself received an award from the High Sheriff of Wiltshire. “When we started, we might have had people telling us to get off their land but most people know who we are now and appreciate what we do,” he says. “Often, they don’t realise the impact this waste can have on wildlife and when we show them, it changes their behaviour.”

Thornbury has plans to leave home to study ICT in Bristol next year, but says he will keep up the community work. “It’s in my heart, so any spare time I have, I’ll be back here and helping out,” he says. “If everyone could just pick up one piece of litter every day, it would make a huge difference. Once you start noticing the waste, you’ll change how you purchase it, too.”

‘It might feel like the problem is too big, but any action is a good action’

Gareth Williams, 34

Like most of us, Gareth Williams spent much of 2020 confined at home in lockdown, only leaving to take walks in his local green spaces. That June, on his 31st birthday, he decided to walk up the Pen-Pych mountain with his two-year-old daughter. “I’d never been there and had no idea how close it was to my house in the Rhondda valley, but when we started climbing it, I was stunned,” he says. “I had an epiphany: I decided that I needed to devote my time to protecting beautiful environments like this and preserving Wales’s climate health for my daughter’s future.”

Earlier that year, Williams had taken stress leave from his job as a stage manager at a theatre company. Two weeks off had turned into eight months when coronavirus hit, and he was furloughed. When he returned, he realised that the theatre was no longer his calling and instead turned towards sustainability.

“I had been trying to litter pick ever since my daughter was born but I often felt alone as there was so much waste around and I was barely making a dent,” he says. “After that walk up Pen-Pych, I realised I needed to make the community that I had been searching for.”

In February 2021, Williams founded Rhondda Litter Pickers & Environment, a social media group aimed at organising litter picks and raising awareness. “We’re a movement, not a service, and we want to encourage people to look after their own areas,” he says. “There’s a lot of great climate-focused legislation being passed by the Welsh government but I don’t see much happening on the grassroots side of encouraging people to change their behaviours. So that’s where we come in.”

Williams’s group puts up posters advertising the areas that are cleaned by volunteers, urging people not to add to the problem, as well as encouraging individuals to head out to their local area and start tidying. They average 1,000 bags of collected waste a year, filled with everything from televisions to car batteries, dog poo and disposable vapes. “It might feel like the problem is too big but any action is a good action,” Williams says. “I promised myself that every year I’d become more sustainable and it has really shown me how you can decarbonise every part of your life – from where you bank to how you shop and travel.”

He is also now achieving his dream of working in the environmental sector, after starting a sustainability post at Swansea University in 2022. “My aim is to inspire as many people as possible,” he says. “The climate crisis will come knocking on your door or it’ll demolish your house, it’s only a matter of time so we need to do whatever we can.”