Tom Sutcliffe: The littering that junk mail forces on us

Social Studies: Does a leaflet actually have to hit the floor before the subtle legal transformation between advertising and litter takes place?
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The Independent Online

I experienced a modest pang of nostalgia on reading about the citizen activist who employed Section 91 of the 1990 Environmental Protection Act to force the Department of Transport to clear up the verges of the M40. I can't be absolutely sure, because it was some years ago now, but I think I once had a brief affair with this bit of legislative small print myself, when I lived close to a stretch of Islington pavement that was popular with fly-tippers.

Pleading with the council to come and clean away the eyesores proved only erratically successful, until I discovered the Litter Abatement Order, an obscure bit of red tape which only had to be lightly tugged to get the attention of whoever it was that sent out the clean-up crews. All you had to do was fax in the required notice that you were setting the legal wheels in motion – and usually within 24 hours the rubbish had gone. By the sound of it Peter Silverman had to go considerably further – actually getting to the stage of a court hearing. But in the end he prevailed – and, for a short while at least, you could eat your dinner off the verges of the M40.

Symptomatic relief only of course, since the underlying causes in each case (fly-tippers and oafish motorists) remained blithely out of reach of the Litter Abatement Order. As it happened, the report of Mr Silverman's heroic bit of I-know-my-rightsmanship coincided with a brief spike in litter in the road where I live – just the kind of thing to provoke a Litter Abatement Order letter, had it not been for the fact that the council had cleared it all away before I had time to get around to writing one. And the cause in this case made me wonder why the Environmental Protection Act doesn't cut out the middle men in such cases.

What had happened was a familiar enough occurrence in urban areas. A local business had sent someone down the road tucking a leaflet under every available windscreen wiper – most of which had ended up on the pavements, as a kind of oversized commercial confetti. And although individual motorists must have been involved in the transfer of the leaflets from windscreen (a private space?) to pavement (a public one), I couldn't help but feel that it was the business that had done the littering. I'd name and shame them, but for the fact that shame wouldn't be forthcoming and naming was what they were after in the first place.

Where do they stand in law I wonder? I've become reconciled to the fact that strangers are entitled to litter my hallway – and that while posting empty pizza cartons and flattened coke tins through my letterbox might be some sort of offence (would it?) it is perfectly legitimate to scatter pizza leaflets and takeaway menus across the floor. But what about the street outside? Does a leaflet actually have to hit the floor before the subtle legal transformation between advertising and litter takes place? Or does tucking it underneath a windscreen wiper count as private delivery? If not you hardly need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where the buck stops – since getting the buck to stop at a particular address is the point of the exercise in the first place. Litter abatement orders are all very well – a useful crowbar to get a bureaucracy unstuck. But they're really being applied in the wrong place. We need something just as potent to stop the litter being printed and distributed in the first place.

Isn't it time the French dumped some manure?

It was strangely gratifying to learn that the French players had called a training strike in response to anxieties over their World Cup campaign – and not just because it's consoling to have company in misery. If the World Cup is about anything it's surely about the reinforcement of national stereotypes. Most of the commentators understand this – effortlessly hauling out the clichés of German technocratic efficiency and Brazilian rhythmic instinct when describing on-pitch action. But it's heartening to find a team committed to the principle too – ignoring special circumstances and reacting to adversity with the same Gallic verve that a disgruntled farmer or air-traffic controller would employ, should their interests be threatened.

Indeed it would be nice to see the team go further when they take to the field against South Africa: several tons of manure should be dumped on the halfway line and three tractors parked in the French goalmouth as an impromptu blockade. Some might argue that this would inflict needless misery on spectators who'd paid good money for the match, but, as anyone unfortunate enough to be on holiday in France during an industrial dispute would be able to tell you, irritating foreigners is just a kind of Dijon mustard to the dedicated gréviste. As for us – time for a bit of British spirit, the available flavours being Blitz or Dunkirk.

Disneyland of death

Staff at the Staglieno cemetery in Genoa are currently under suspicion of a ghoulish form of recycling – accused of stripping gold fillings and artificial limbs from corpses for their resale value. A local councillor hypothesised that the thefts were due to "psychological degradation" incurred by spending too much time around corpses. But it seems likelier that the staff in question just aren't paid enough – and found it grating that they were getting pennies for sweeping paths in a goldmine. No excuse for their solution, of course, but I have another one.

Everyone but relatives of the Staglieno's residents should be charged admission to this sadly under-exploited touristic resource. The Staglieno is one of the great cemeteries of the world, a Disneyland of wildly ill-judged funerary sculpture (such as the life-size memorial which captures the moment at which an interree was ravished by her top-hatted killer). True it can't boast quite as many celebrity dead as the Père Lachaise. But it makes up for that with an extravagance of melancholy style. It should be as much a fixture of any Italian tour as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Uffizi.