Anyone looking for a handy all-purpose metaphor for the mood of Britain in the early 21st century has only to look around them. It will be there in the plastic sandwich-container on a train seat, in the swirl of fast-food wrapping and discarded newspapers on the pavement, in the empty beer cans and plastic bags that lie beside roads and in lay-bys across the country.
Littering – or, rather, just leaving stuff around – has become a national habit. It is getting worse at a spectacular rate. Year on year, the cost to the public purse has risen at a dizzying rate: it was more than £733m for 2007-8, and figures for the following year, to be published next week, will show yet another startling rise. Every time statistics reveal the ever-growing trail of rubbish that the British leave behind, there is hand-wringing from the usual well-meaning bodies. The current system of fines, a bad joke, should be revised, they argue. There should be a public information campaign.
The truth is that the littering habit is now deeply ingrained in the way we live. It has become a symbol of the listless indifference which many, perhaps most, people feel towards others and to the environment around them. An inescapable everyday expression of indolent self-disgust, it speaks of a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Strangely, the careless and promiscuous scattering of personal rubbish is not only accepted by our culture but sometimes actively encouraged. This week, at Liverpool Street station, I had the bizarre experience of being instructed to drop litter by a railway official. I had looked all over for some kind of bag or bin in which to place a plastic bottle and some papers. There was nothing. I scouted around the streets nearby. The pavements were a carpet of refuse – unsurprisingly since there were no bins there either.
I went to the information counter and asked where I could throw my rubbish. The man behind the counter was genuinely incredulous. He had heard everything now. "Just put it down somewhere." He spoke slowly, as he was having to deal with yet another moronic member of the public. "There are people around to pick it up."
The pathetic excuse for rubbish-strewn stations is to blame the terrorists. Transparent rubbish bags are used elsewhere. On trains as well as stations, it is now a social norm that rubbish is left by passengers. Thus litter brings together the worst of the greedy free market and the nanny state. The sons and daughters of Thatcher are too selfish to care about others; while little Blairites know that the responsibility belongs to those in charge.
Then there is the environmental hypocrisy. We agonise over the dwindling global supply of fossil fuels, yet become ever more addicted to oil-produced plastic packaging. We blub about the decline of species on land and in the ocean while our own detritus chokes and poisons them. We proclaim the preciousness of the planet while allowing our own little corner of it to be despoiled.
There are, of course, individuals who struggle on, picking up cans and cartons as they walk, organising litter-collection parties. A hero called Peter Silverman, noticing the decline of the M40, had a court serve a litter abatement order on the Department of Transport; soon the litter-collection lorries were rolling.
These people, I suspect, have seen that grand environmental gestures tend to involve the trashing of the small and the local. They have realised that the best way to improve the planet is to take care of your own back yard. They are the true, positive face of nimbyism. No doubt, the days are drawing to a close when litter is tolerated, when lorries can be sent to the M40 and refuse collectors are on every station, and just possibly the obsession with plastic will begin to seem rather ill-timed.
Either way, the solution to the great litter epidemic lies not with grand government plans but within the soul of individuals. It comes down to whether we care for the land in which we live.