What Would David Do? Taking on the Litter Louts!

Who are your living heroes?

I have three: Stephen Sondheim, Tim Minchin and David Sedaris.

Stephen Sondheim and Tim Minchin are musical philosophers whose wisdom is expressed in exquisite lyrics. All of human life is there.

David Sedaris picks up litter. (Oh ok, he’s a brilliant humorist and author too.)

‘What would David do?’ was the question that popped into my head yesterday when my husband and I were confronted by a situation which had never previously arisen.

We’d arrived in Cambridge to drop our son off at university. It’s a city we love, not just because it is eye-wateringly beautiful or because it is so brilliantly diverse but because, generally speaking, it is an educated city. A city literally defined by education. The streets are full of educated people.

Or at least, that’s what I thought.

We pulled up outside Theo’s college and waited in the car while he dashed to the porters’ lodge to collect his key.

A Shogun pulled up in front of us and two young women got out. A push chair was removed from the boot, and an infant and a can of Red Bull from the back seat.

The young mother handed a wad of what looked like After Eight mint wrappers to the other girl while she dealt with the baby. The girl proceeded to drop the wrappers one by one, down the drain by the kerb.

We sat, paralysed by our Britishness in the face of a littering offence. Should we say something? Cause a scene? There was a bin a matter of twelve feet away.

I bravely told my husband to tell her to use the bin. “I have to share a planet with her!” I said.

My husband opened the car door and got out.

“Excuse me,” he began, “there’s a bin over there.” He indicated the bin.

“Yeah? So what? There’s a drain here.”

“Yes, but you don’t put litter down the drain, it’ll pollute the rivers and the sea, won’t it? You put litter in a bin.”

The subsequent conversation with the sixteen year old (for that was her age) threw up the following:

She didn’t see what was wrong with chucking litter down drains:

“Are you a man paid to clean the drains? No? So what’s your problem? People do that for a job.”

She didn’t understand that drains lead to our rivers and seas and that litter pollutes waters for wildlife:

“Why do you care about fish? Who cares about fish?” 

She had no idea that littering was an offence:

“Yeah, well you pay the fine if you care about it so much.”

She had absolutely no social conscience:

“Why do you keep going on about sharing a planet with me?”

Her litter was somebody else’s problem:

“You pick it up then!”

I have never been so depressed in my life.

I have been given to believe by the media that young people are concerned about the environment. Loads of them have been going on school strikes to protest climate change. Young people of my acquaintance have gone vegan at rates almost as fast as those of arctic ice melt.

And yet… Here was a young person whose ignorance was breathtaking. And we were only talking about dropping litter. We weren’t even talking about recycling or carbon emissions or biodiversity.

David Sedaris lives in Horsham, West Sussex. When he’s not writing his beautifully crafted essays, he walks the country lanes near his home collecting litter.

He’s collected so much litter that,  back in 2014, the district council named one of its refuse trucks after him.

Having moved to the South Downs from the US, Sedaris is appreciative of the outstanding beauty of his surroundings and furious about the carelessness of people who litter it.

I think of him often on the walks I take around my own home in Dorset. We are fortunate in living more remotely than David but people litter here too.

I often return from my walks with fast food trays, empty cans and crisps packets thrown from car windows.

One time I returned with a plastic bottle full of apple juice.

“That’s not apple juice,” said my husband when he saw it. “That’s a bottle of piss.”

Sometimes it’s really hard not to just hate human beings.

I watched David Attenborough talk about climate change this week. I saw the news footage of the Extinction Rebellion on the telly.

Lots and lots of us are trying to do a bit to reduce our footprint on the planet. It’ll never be enough. Not while people are brought up to dislocate their actions from consequences.

Loves, we’re fucked.


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  1. The environment, Sam? Look down on Portsmouth from Portsdown Hill and there’s always a hazy blanket hanging over the city from vehicle exhausts. A quick improvement could be found by asking DVLA for a list of Portsmouth-registered, diesel-engined vehicles with lapsed MOT certificates and then the authorities hunting them down. Can you get anyone interested? Not a chance . . .

  2. Did you catch Archive on 4 looking – Remembering Christopher Hitchens? The last two words he wrote on a pad before his death were… Capitalism, doomed. Very profound for one’s last utterances. Never ending perpetual growth with a finite resource – our planet – will be our undoing. I really hope that collectively we will see sense in the next 10 years…

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