Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Red Bull cans and KFC handwipes - insights into Britain's litter grip MPs


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Whether David Sedaris’s call for litter louts to be systematically reduced to a state of “abject paranoia” will feature in the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee report on the subject, is doubtful. But it was improbably cool of the MPs to invite him as a witness. 

Sedaris leads a double life. To his millions of fans, he is a foremost American humourist and writer. In West Sussex he is a local hero – a council lorry has been named after him – because of an “obsession” driving him, as he explained, to “spend between three and eight hours a day picking up rubbish”.

Labour’s Simon Danczuk, who pressed Sedaris about the prosperous environs of Pulborough, where the writer lives, afterwards tweeted that Sedaris had told the committee that “it’s poor people who cause UK’s litter”. That’s not quite how Sedaris put it. But – while insisting that he was not being “snobbish” – he did agree that the “bags of crap” he picked up in hedgerows or trees were more likely to be from Tesco Metro than Waitrose.

“I haven’t found any opera tickets,” he admitted. Maybe, he mused, people passing through were thinking, “I don’t get to live here so screw you, people who live here.”

Which didn’t mean people in deprived areas had any less right to freedom from litter than those in rich ones. “Why should anyone live in a teenager’s bedroom?” he evangelised. “To walk in filth is no way to live.”

As an emerging national expert on what gets chucked, he cited Walkers Crisp packets, Cadbury’s wrappers, Mayfair cigarette packets, and Red Bull cans – the makers of which could be asked to fund a TV advertising campaign humiliating “litterers” by “relentlessly” mocking them. Instead, he said indignantly, a “Red Bull gives you wings” advert had shown a “guy throwing his can over his shoulder and flying. He’s littering right there in the commercial.”

Some of his ideas sounded, he confessed, “crazy”. Having observed how much rubbish gets thrown out on the road he suggested: “I’d set up checkpoints and fine everyone who has a clean car.” More seriously, perhaps, he suggested higher fines – in Massachusetts, he pointed out, they go up to $10,000 (£6,590) and more systematic “ticketing” of offenders.

Recently, Sedaris told New Yorker readers that a lot of West Sussex couples “seem to have sex in their cars”. Apart from the “spent condoms” he found usually “in little pull-over areas… I regularly pick up empty KFC containers and a great number of soiled Handi Wipes. Do they eat fried chicken and then have sex, or is it the other way round? I wonder.”

He did not share this question with the committee today. Which is a pity. They might have had a view.