There are few sights in the Scottish countryside more dismaying than plastic bottles along the roadside and crisp packets among the hedgerows. There are, nevertheless, much worse examples of environmental vandalism. Two of them include an historic case concerning a ditch full of discarded fridge-freezers just outside Coupar Angus, while another is the blatant offload of spent car tyres over a roadside fence between Invergowrie and Longforgan.
Fly tipping has reached epidemic proportions in Scotland, but it is hardly new or unique in a landscape that we profess to love, but fail to revere. I first came across the ditch where white goods go to die about ten years ago. It was clearly firmly established as a roadside pit stop for dumpsters with busted appliances, and no conscience. They remained there for some considerable time; presumably because their prompt removal seemed inextricably wedged between the responsibilities of landowners and government agencies.
More recently, the tyres, which I photographed during a half hour walk, were not placed there indiscriminately. There had been regular dumps taking place over time, and the cynicism of these acts was underlined as pile after pile peeked out from beneath leaf litter, dead grass and broken branches. A burn nearby flowed on oblivious to the desecration, but will no doubt feel the malign effects of substances leaching into its waters. Obviously, tyres remain intact for decades, but some of their components such as zinc, chromium, lead, copper, cadmium and sulphur will break down and find their unwelcome way into the circle of life.
Examples such as these are hardly isolated. Flytipping in Scotland is now widespread, and the casual littering of substantial waste items is commonplace. The government has the figures to prove it, but little else to offer in terms of remedial action. In fact, there is a whiff of abdication of responsibility around Zero Waste Scotland, the Scottish government’s ‘waste management partner’, which seems to consists of a colourful website littered with impotent slogans and stern warnings of rather puny penalties. Their stats, however, back up my claim that flytipping is a the plague upon our nation. “There are over 60,000 incidents of fly-tipping reported each year in Scotland, costing over £8.9 million of public money to clear up.”
If anything, web-based advice centres act as portals into a whole world of waste. One website leads to another and a little browsing quickly reveals the dismaying scale of wanton dumping. As a species, we don’t just dump car tyres. We make mountains out of them, bury them, burn them, and only rarely usefully recycle them. We throw them into the sea along with ton after ton of discarded non-biodegradable waste, not least, microbeads, the latest bête noire of marine conservation.
Apparently, there are more than 51 trillion of these indigestible additions to the marine food chain, and that ought to give us all pause for thought over our next prawn cocktail. The fact is that the damage done to date, and the willful damage yet to be done, is already beyond measure. No amount of cleaning up will alter that. Only a sea-change in individual and collective attitudes can save our planet from Homo sapiens – an enemy that must discover a greater capacity for mercy, and greater determination to prioritize long-term collective benefits over short-term individual advantages.
It is easy to feel impotent in the face of a global garbage mountain that makes Ben Nevis look like a pimple on the Highland landscape. It’s also a convenient excuse to acknowledge that Scots are no better or worse than anyone else when it comes to thoughtless environmental disregard. Nevertheless, there are good reasons why it should matter much more in Scotland than it patently does at the moment.
Tourism is a major component of Scotland’s economic portfolio, for it is key to any future prosperity and perceptions of the country among potential economic partners. In many ways, tourism is underdeveloped in the absence of connected policies that could and should place environmental protection and landscape preservation at the heart of an enterprise culture. Our unique selling points include outstanding natural beauty as a real and uplifting experience, yet exemplary custodianship still needs to be embedded in the psyche of a Scotland that has any thoughts of greater self-determination.
Politicians from across the party spectrum need to think much more creatively about ground-up environmental education, innovative waste management and aggressive enforcement of environmental laws. They have debated too much about Scottish individualism, and had too little to say about conformity in a consumer culture that is little different from any other elsewhere in the world.
Our collective disdain for the environment represents a lost opportunity to show the world that we really are a worthy of example of consensus-driven, small-state nationhood. As long as we lack a fully developed sense of civic responsibility and continue dumping all over Scotland, we have no right to boast about our ‘differentness’. It will then matter even less to future generations whether Scotland is a quasi-independent country or a strong partner in a dubious union. Scotland will be just another rubbish place to live.
The fridges and freezers have been removed from the ditch near the lay-by outside Coupar Angus, only to be replaced by other kinds of garbage. The next lay-by along the same road (very near to the neat, cleanly swept streets of Birkhill) told the same story. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that, for many Scots, lay-by must mean ‘rubbish tip’ in some other impenetrable, foreign language. Clearly, the dumpers are as impervious to the threat of sanctions as the habitual parking fine dodgers, or the morons who routinely text while driving and breaking the speed limit in a built-up area at the same time.
Civic responsibility can only thrive in a climate where civic irresponsibility is anathema, and it requires behavioural change on the same scale already accomplished by (seemingly unaccountable) fast food corporations and bottled drinks companies that have contributed so much to throwaway thinking.
No amount of sloganeering on web media will compensate for lost tourism revenue and diminished status abroad if we think so little of Scotland that we cannot even pick up our own garbage and dispose of it responsibly. We need to remind ourselves of that with same energy, emphasis and resources used by those who create ‘disposable’ consumables to promote perverse notions of convenience. In ten-foot-high letters if necessary.