AS one of the army of folk who have found joy in our wild waters this summer, I rolled up at 8am to be greeted with a misty morn and a scene that looked like an Athena poster: serene, with geese gliding across the reservoir and silver flashes of jumping fish, as the sun struggled to penetrate the blue-grey sky. Quite the leveller for the soul.

This was my second impression.

My first was a panorama punctuated with discarded cans, baby wipes, a barbecue, an inflatable donut ring, plastic bottles and crisp packets sporadically peppering the pebble beach. My friend and I tidied them into a pile – might as well do something about it rather than be sour.

I’m under no illusion that this is just an issue in scenic spots. The areas worst affected by persistent littering are the some of the most deprived urban neighbourhoods. And while there are bigger issues facing us – climate crisis, the rise of the far right, the dismantling of democracy, feeding the world, and who rules whom – the issue of litter has a far wider impact than aesthetics alone, affecting wellbeing, sense of pride, feelings of safety, fear of crime, quality of life and environment.

England has experienced a 500 per cent increase in litter since 1960, according to CPRE, the countryside charity. Unfortunately, the picture here’s not much better, with 15,000 tonnes or 250 million items every year, equivalent to 475 items dropped every minute.

In recognition of this, Keep Scotland Beautiful launched its Ronseal-worthy entitled Time For a New Approach to Tackling Litter report in December 2020 – with the tagline Towards a Litter-ate Scotland (bet they were chuffed with that) – concluding a coordinated approach, with greater investment and profile, is urgently needed to tackle the complex prospect of a “looming litter emergency”.

The success of the 1971 Keep America Beautiful campaign, featuring a tearful native American, Iron Eyes Cody, was hailed as a major contributor to falling littering rates. I’m not sure what our equivalent could be – a kilted Sam Heughan surveying the mountainscape and blinking back tears as he picks up a rusty tinnie of Irn-Bru and a Tunnock’s wrapper – but, as with so many things, it seems sensible to spend cash on awareness and prevention rather than picking up the resultant trash. Awareness is often cited as the first step in changing attitudes – the higher profile, the better.

Keep Scotland Beautiful does try with its campaigns promoting community litter picks, while Zero Waste Scotland has borrowed the beloved tones of oor Janey Godley as the voiceover for its summer campaign: “Bin yer litter or take it home. Ye’ve been telt.”

Our right to roam is one of our greatest national triumphs, covering land and inland waters. Access to natural places is for everyone – a particular boon after lengthy restrictions and lockdowns – and I’m all for folk enjoying Scotland’s majestic beauty and getting their dose of nature therapy. But rights don’t come on their own. They come in a twin-pack, with responsibilities tucked in by their side – more a Twix than a Freddo.

Culturally, the West is rightly obsessed with individual rights. Yet discourse generally sticks within the parameters of rights, without considering responsibilities and collective rights. How often are responsibilities mentioned when we laud our right to roam? Not very.

Acting responsibly is enshrined in the right to roam. Where the Land Reform (Scotland) Act sets out who may access outdoor land and waters, the Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives a few basic conditions. Essentially, take the Twix wrappers with you, don’t invite 1000 folk to a rave, don’t torture rodents or step on eggs, and limit the wild camping to two nights before it’s time to move on.

Litter is a symptom of a society that doesn’t respect itself and lacks aspirations – part of a broader avoidance of responsibility in our modern culture, perhaps. It’s a behaviour rooted in family attitudes and parenting. Schools can do their bit raising awareness and promoting litter picks but when attitudes are ingrained in the family it’s a greater challenge.

How do you instil respect? It’s a slow game, with no overnight successes, but a higher profile approach is a start. Litter attracts more litter; the longer we tolerate it, the more embedded it becomes as a normal behaviour. Scientists say it must be stopped at source, with less disposable packaging. In the meantime, while the producers work out ways to reduce packaging and promote refill and recycle incentives, it is down to individual behaviour. Investment and opportunities injected into deprived areas is also highlighted, together with greater community involvement.

In other European countries, access to nature is accompanied by a leave no trace culture. Evidence points to pro-social behaviour once people have had positive experiences of nature. So we continue litter-picking, driving home the message, promoting pride in our country, and hopefully, over time, that filters through. There is also the point of getting past the idea of nature as separate from our neighbourhoods – the wildlife trusts want the public to engage with nature on our doorsteps without having to drive anywhere.

“Scotland needs rubbish role models,” says Zero Waste Scotland – by which presumably they mean we need good role models on the subject of rubbish, not role models who are rubbish. Their campaign showcases beautiful countryside rather than showing us the litter. It’s empowering rather than depressing, augmenting the solution, not the problem. I hope it’s enough to make a few of those who litter pause and reconsider their behaviour.

The US philosopher Elbert Hubbard said, “Responsibility is the price of freedom.” Perhaps we need reminded of this fact. Creating a more respectful society will gradually clean up our litter scourge, but it will take time. We are Scotland, and we are beautiful.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.