Littering as vandalism

NO matter how often I saw it, the litter left by visitors to the kilometres of sandy strip known as Stockton beach shocked me – how could adults there to enjoy what really is an environmental treasure defile it? Over a decade until 15 years ago I’d go fishing, often overnight, somewhere along the 30 kilometres of Stockton Bight several times a year and the rubbish left above and below the high-tide range and in the dunes immediately behind the beach was staggering and depressing.

As you read in yesterday’s Herald, the woman who’s walked along the coast from Byron Bay to Newcastle, Rachel Klyve, had much the same reaction, describing Stockton beach as the most polluted she’s walked along in the 600 kilometres. Miss Klyve, who’s walking to Sydney to raise awareness of chronic fatigue syndrome, mentioned camping remains specifically, and that was the most common and the most confronting pollution I found on the bight. Empty bottles and cans of beer, opened cans of food, plastic wrappers usually scattered around an extinct campfire. Sometimes there’d be a broken collapsible chair – they don’t do sand well – and discarded clothing.

I could not accept that fishing folk would so degrade the place. Nor four-wheel-drivers. I have been in the company of dozens of men on Stockton Bight trips and not once have I seen any not take their rubbish home with them. Occasionally we’d load the vandals’ bottles and cans into a green plastic bag if we were camped nearby, but, sadly, the pollution was such that this seemed pointless. Just as troubling, although I’m sure the perpetrators would see it as nothing, was the tossing of an empty can or bottle from a vehicle window, perhaps even more inexplicable than the campers’ failure to pick up because it would be easier to leave it on the floor of the vehicle.

On other fishing beaches I visited we’d encounter the detritis of campers but nowhere near as often as on the Stockton-Anna Bay strip. And while all beaches have litter that’s washed up from ships or rivers, it is not the worst of it.

Who are these polluters?

Most, I suspect, are teenagers or just a little older, and I base that on the often-observed propensity of teenagers to walk away from their mess, to leave the cleaning to someone else, indeed to not see the mess. I come across an example of that on the Mid North Coast beach near where I camp each year after Christmas. Young people go to the beach at night to party, which suits the rest of us just fine, and the next day the oldies go over with garbage bags to pick up their bottles and cans. We don’t whinge about it, we’re not annoyed about it, we just accept that that’s the way it is.

Much like my own children, teenage and older, will leave mugs and plates on the floor in front of the television. Making a scene will see them carry their mug and plate to the sink, but only once. Someone else will clean it up, and someone else does.

I’m being too kind, because leaving the litter of a night’s drinking on a beach is of a different order regardless of how the perpetrators see it or don’t see it. And how can we explain the mindset of people who throw burger wrappings and other refuse from a car? Decades ago it was the usual practice, to toss rubbish out the window rather than have it make a mess in the car, but those days are gone thankfully.

Perhaps people pollute with their refuse for the same reason they vandalise public property. Reasons range from a challenge to authority to lack of a sense of ownership in public property to laziness, and poor parenting may be there too. And I’m always taken by people who fold their wrappings or break a can into pieces to jam into the gaps of a bench or park table rather than leave it on the ground or take it to the bin. Are these the people who throw sand over their bottles on the beach as they leave empty-handed?

What of smokers who kick their stubbed butt into the gutter? What is going on in their mind?

Do you agree that we should abandon the notion of littering and lift that offence to the order of vandalism, of malicious damage?

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