Scotland got filthier during the pandemic, according to extensive and detailed litter surveys of the nation’s streets.

An independent watchdog found one in 10 of the places they spot-checked during the last financial year had unacceptable levels of rubbish.

And it said fewer than one in five out of more than 10,000 sites visited in the course of 2020/21 were trash free.

READ MORE: Official in charge of keeping Glasgow's streets clean 'puzzled' by criticism

Keep Scotland Beautiful has been monitoring cleanliness across the country for many years and produces an objective snapshot of the state of streets and public spaces every year. 

The watchdog’s checks in 2020/21 – the financial year co-incided with the first 12 month of the Covid-19 outbreak –unsurprisingly revealed a new source of litter: PPE such as face masks and gloves.  

But it also found the highest levels of areas polluted with fast-food litter and cigarette butts in the last decade.

The checks reflect some of the problems councils, businesses and landlords have had keeping their spaces clean and tidy during a public health crisis.

KSB chief executive Barry Fisher railed against what he called “selfish, careless and irresponsible” individuals causing the mess.

“What is it about people, who claim to be so proud of their country, that feel it is justified to litter their local places, spoiling it for everyone else and then expecting others to clean it up?” he asked.

KSB’s spot-checks are called the Local Environmental Audit and Management System (LEAMS) and are carried out in conjunction with councils. Inspectors grade spaces on a six-point scale, the last two of which are deemed unacceptable and essentially amount to areas covered in litter or where there is so much rubbish it forms piles. But it also monitors issues like vandalism, weeds and dog fouling.

The LEAMS cleanliness scores are given as a percentage of sites which are acceptable. In the last financial year, the national average is 90 per cent, down by 2.1 points. 

Dog waste

WASTE experts stress that while that figure may not sound dramatic,  it reflects a significant increase in rubbish in streets and other public spaces. And this includes residential streets – one in 10 of which was deemed unacceptable.

A similar proportion of footpaths and verges in high-density areas suffers from dog waste.

KSB officials stress that their figures are snapshots – they might happen to visit a site just after it was cleaned, or right after an event which left litter.

But they do grade local authorities on their cleanliness and more than half got lower scores in the year.

The worst performing was Falkirk. Its score dropped from a respectable 90.8% in 2019/20 to 81.1% in 2020/21. Next lowest was Edinburgh, which also experienced a heavy fall in its cleanliness, from 92.9% to 81.8%. 

In Glasgow, rows about litter have generated national attention in recent weeks with some opposition politicians and trade unionists calling the city “filthy” – and referring to a waste “crisis”. The KSB report gives Glasgow a low score, just above Edinburgh at 82.5% and down from 85.1% a year before. This is a lower reduction in standards than seen in some other areas. 

Widespread issue

OTHER councils with more mess included Midlothian, Argyll & Bute, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire. However, other local authorities, including Aberdeen and Dundee, both recorded higher scores during the pandemic. KSB stressed its work was carried out at different stages of lockdown and public health controls.

Glasgow, Edinburgh and other big cities in the UK and the rest of Europe moved to prioritise bin collections during the pandemic, for public health reasons, with other services, such as street-sweeping or civic amenity sites reduced.

The Association of Cities and Regions for sustainable resource management –ARC – this spring published a major report into dramatic changes in the waste industry during the first lockdown.

It said many local authorities across Europe had reported a rise in flytipping during lockdown, with Ireland, for example, recording an 11% rise. 

There have also been changes in where rubbish is generated. Main shopping streets and tourist areas were less busy – and there was less litter to pick up or empty from bins. But stay-at-home orders in some areas meant people were buying more online – meaning they had cardboard packaging to recycle.  

ARC concluded that the key to dealing successfully with the pandemic – even when workers were affected by disease or lockdowns – was flexibility.

Usually there are strong links between poverty and rubbish. KSB figures again confirmed this. The group concluded: “When looking at the 20% most deprived areas, 28% have unacceptable litter levels compared with 4% in the 20% least deprived.”

Mr Fisher added: “Over the past decade we have seen a steady increase in the amount of litter across Scotland.

“While it’s important to remember that any litter survey only shows a snapshot of a problem at that moment in time, our annual surveys of Scotland highlight that our throwaway society has resulted in an increase in litter nationally.

“Despite the state of some of our best places, we have also been inspired by those who are just as angry as we are, the volunteers who are taking it upon themselves to carry out litter picks and clean up the places they love. Littering is illegal and unacceptable. Our message is clear – bin it, and if you can’t, take it home!”