A speed camera for public streets.
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Do We Need Artificial Intelligence To Solve The UK’s Littering Crisis?

March 26, 2024

2 million pieces of litter are dropped in the UK every day. 70% of that litter is made up of drink cans and bottles, and over 2 million small mammals sadly die every year from being trapped in empty, discarded drink containers left on the ground. 

The UK is facing a street litter epidemic. And local authorities across the UK are fighting hard to minimise the amount of litter that’s left on the streets and it’s costing them millions of pounds to do it.

According to Keep Britain Tidy, around 23% of people litter from their car – local authorities are now cracking down on holding those responsible by introducing a new technology known as ‘Littercam’, an AI-fueled project that’s capable of detecting when rubbish is thrown from vehicles with the ability to track them down. This new software is being tried and tested by councils across the country.

Why do people throw rubbish out of their cars?

There are a number of reasons why people throw rubbish out of their cars:

1. Convenience

Throwing litter from your car requires very minimal effort on your part. It prevents you from having to step outside the vehicle to find a suitable bin, and it can be a quick way to clear out the car.

2. Lack of awareness or concern

Those who litter from their car may not be fully aware of the damage it can do to the environment. And those who are aware of the consequences may not see how it directly impacts them.

3. Repeating behaviours

People tend to make decisions based on what they see. If they see litter being incorrectly thrown and disposed of in the streets, they may feel like they can do the same. It can stem from a lack of accountability – you’re adding to a problem you can likely ignore on a personal level because you’re doing what everyone else is doing. You haven’t ‘created’ the problem.

4. Lack of facilities

Perhaps the rates in which people throw litter on the streets from their car could be massively reduced if more roadside litter bins were present. Sometimes existing issues require a simple solution, and this is how the Road Hog Roadside Litter Bin came to be.

Is it illegal to throw litter out of the car?

Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Environmental Act of 2005, it’s illegal to throw litter from your car in the UK. If you are found to have thrown litter from your car, offenders could be ordered to pay a £150 fine as part of the effort to reduce the number of offenders.

A plastic bottle being thrown from a car.
A plastic bottle being thrown from a car. Source: freepik.com

Could artificial intelligence help councils solve the UK's littering crisis?

New software has the ability to capture even the smallest bits of rubbish. These cameras can separate objects in a frame, focusing specifically on anomalies. This means that these Littercams recognise vehicles and can detect objects coming from the car while stationary and on the move. Once councils gather the footage, they can contact the DVLA to issue fines. 

Speed cameras, however, can capture litter-throwing offenders, but you can’t find them if you’re not looking for them. This is why so many offenders go unnoticed, and why litter-throwing detection is so important.

Artificial intelligence could certainly help – technology has the power to be more efficient than just us humans, spotting things and performing tasks that we may not have the capacity to do. AI, and technology as a whole, are constantly developing. ChatGPT has been a hot topic since its introduction by OpenAI in November 2022. Since then, updates have been made to improve its function and useability.  Then in March 2023, ChatGPT-4 launched. This paid version is multimodal, with the ability to process and analyse text, images and voice.

Artificial intelligence is continuously developing – what we see now could be a small stepping stone to future capabilities. And there’s no doubt that, should these Littercams be successful, they’ll be subject to further improvements that could shape the way we handle littering in the country.    

Do we need artificial intelligence to help solve the littering crisis?

Although artificial intelligence could support councils and make a big difference in tackling the UK’s littering crisis, it’s not the only option. John Read, the Founder of Clean Up Britain, firmly believes that the main cause of the UK’s littering problems stem from too much talk and not enough action.   

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have made it clear that their focus remains on utilising litter bins to tackle the issue, issuing up to £1 million in grant funding to local authorities to purchase new bins. But most litter bins require you to walk up to them to throw away your rubbish – this won’t be very effective against those who throw litter from their car. That’s why we created the Road Hog Roadside Litter Bin, which we’ll talk about in just a moment.

How we can help solve the UK's street littering crisis without AI

AI has its fingers in a lot of pies right now. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. Waste management can be done effectively with old-fashioned human input – all that’s required is strategic thinking and cooperation.

Here are some ways we can solve the UK’s street littering crisis without artificial intelligence:

The Road Hog Roadside Litter Bin

Just above we mentioned our Road Hog Roadside Litter Bin, and for good reason. This roadside litter bin is purpose-made for laybys, roadsides, service stations and drive-throughs. It’s been carefully designed to allow drivers to throw waste from their vehicle without missing – this is thanks to the large open aperture and tall hood that deflects waste into the bin should you miss the opening. 

Inside is a 140-litre wheelie bin that can be accessed and emptied via the front-opening door. Each unit is manufactured using galvanised steel, providing excellent durability with rust and corrosion resistance.

Road Hog Roadside Litter Bin on a lay-by.
The Road Hog Roadside Litter Bin

These roadside units make it effortless for people to throw waste out of their vehicles. They offer convenience as they don’t need to leave their cars to do it and that’s the crucial part. We wanted to reduce the chances of waste surrounding these roadside bins because if waste can be seen outside the units, drivers may be less reluctant to use the bin as it’s intended.

Their presence can also be a nudge to do the right thing. Environmental cues can encourage people to act accordingly, and seeing these units that are purpose-made for vehicle litter could be the push to encourage drivers to dispose of their litter responsibly.

We can provide bespoke designs that make it clear what the bin is for, with powerful messaging that can further encourage action. In 2018, we partnered with environmental charity Hubbub for their roadside litter campaign. Alongside its stylish design was the hashtag, #DriveDownLitter. This hashtag would be adopted by Shell, Costa Express, Highways England and Roadchef, who partnered with Hububb to support the campaign.

Road Hog Roadside Litter Bin in use.
A man throwing litter into the Road Hog Roadside Litter Bin from his truck

Campaigns

Spreading awareness can be one of the most effective ways to educate the public, and campaigns can be a great way to get the ball rolling and drive change. Behaviours can shift – you just need to get the right message across to make that happen! 

At Wybone, we’re passionate about the environment and redefining the way we manage waste management practices. We’re fortunate to have been a part of some amazing initiatives, particularly with Hubbub – the environmental charity that focuses on improving the world we live in. Alongside the #DriveDownLitter campaign, here are some more projects we were involved in to give you some inspiration:

#LeedsByExample Recycling Initiative

In 2018, Hubbub launched a recycling scheme for the City of Leeds. The charity found that a lot of us eat and drink on the go, what with our busy schedules in the hustle and bustle of a city centre. This equates to about 13 billion plastic bottles, 9 billion drinks and 2.5 billion coffee cups every year. And the vast majority of people are unsure about what can and can’t be recycled. 

We designed our popular Eco Cup Recycling Bin with Hubbub’s branding, providing a designated waste stream for coffee cups, offering and providing this design to businesses local to Leeds that wanted to be a part of the initiative.

Hubbub's Cup Fund

Hubbub’s Cup Fund took place in 2019 – it was the UK’s largest grant fund to support a new scheme specifically for cup recycling. The grant provided one year of funding between £50,000 and £100,000 to each successful cup recycling project.  

You can read the full story here.

Both campaigns used personalised, proactive messaging, bespoke designs and incentives for customers to get involved and spread the word – the embodiment of any successful educational campaign.

Community clean-up initiatives

Organising community clean-ups where volunteers come and help keep streets tidy from rubbish can be a great way to raise awareness around the seriousness of litter throwing, in and out of a vehicle. 

Cleanup UK is, as they put it, a small charity with a big heart. They match those interested in litter clean-up volunteering with groups close to their community. They also guide you to your nearest Cleanup Hub where you can borrow litter-picking equipment. 

We’re a big fan of volunteering initiatives like this. So much so, that we provide our own range of litter-picking equipment.

A man picking litter.
A man picking litter. Source: Pexels

Educating in schools

Living Streets is a UK-based charity that shines a light on the positives of everyday walking. Tanya Braun, the Director of Policy and Communications, wrote a blog for Sport England that talks about creating healthy habits at a young age. Naturally, the blog focuses on daily walking as part of this habit-building. They created the Walk to School Week, encouraging children to walk to school with their parents instead of driving (route permitting).

Tanya talks about how supporting children to be more physically active from a young age instills good lifelong habits. And we think this extends beyond just being physically active. According to the Open Access Government, a vast majority of the public is unaware of what classes as litter and the fines that are given to those that litter on the street. Introducing environmental education into school curriculums could have the same effect, spreading awareness and teaching young children the importance of throwing away their waste correctly, along with proper recycling methods. 

Rounding things up

Artificial intelligence is making its way into the street waste scene, and for good reason. AI has the ability to outperform the efficiency and capability of humans, but we shouldn’t count out what we’re capable of ourselves.

Instead, we should embrace the development of AI, work in tandem with it and also learn from it. We’ll be watching the growth of this newly found Littercam with curious eyes, whilst continuing to back and support future initiatives that work to keep streets clean.

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