Who's responsible for litter?

By Janette Woodhouse
Monday, 12 March, 2007

We have a great boss.

Every year, for Clean Up Australia Day, he dresses us in flouro-coloured vests, supplies us with lunch and sends us off to clean a local road. About twenty of us use an hour of work time and our lunchbreak to collect the rubbish and litter along a one-kilometre stretch of the The Comenarra Parkway.

The area we clean starts at a primary school, passes a few houses and then extends through a cutting through a further reach of the Lane Cove National Park.

We collect all sort of things but litter resulting from the food industry is the most common item we collect - noticeably, packaging from McDonald's heads the list. The area we clean is about a Big Mac and Fries from McDonald's head office and restaurant in Thornleigh and we are forced to wonder if McDonald's is the 'Founding Partner' of Clean Up Australia just to facilitate cleaning up the mess it generates!

The next category that was over-represented in the litter this year was flexible confectionery wrappers. These innocuous little wrappers seemed to be particularly persistent. Congratulations must go to the flexible film manufacturers as their product undoubtedly protects the confectionery admirably but this is probably adding to its longevity as litter.

Where does responsibility for litter lie?

In McDonald's defence, they do supply rubbish bins at their establishments and they do not suggest that their patrons chuck their litter out the window as they pass through the cutting on the The Comenarra Parkway.

In recent years, the company changed its packaging to be more environmentally friendly and McDonald's CEO, Peter Bush, is a signatory to the National Packaging Covenant - what more is it reasonable to expect the company to do?

As for confectionery manufacturers, their prime concern is to deliver their product to consumers in pristine condition and their packaging material selection is likely to be focused on protecting their product through the supply chain. How much responsibility should they bear because school kids find it simpler to dump their rubbish rather than find a bin?

No one can control how their product will be used by the consumer. In the 80s, I was chief chemist at Orchy and we got miles of free publicity because so many of our bottles were being converted into bongs.

However, as environmental and sustainability issues achieve greater and greater prominence in corporate governance, it is time the final fate of packaging is considered as a fundamental part of product design.

Then at Clean Up Australia Day next year, I can just expect to collect all the stray bits that have fallen off cars as they bounce through the unfilled potholes on The Comenarra Parkway.

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