I LOVED working with Irn-Bru. They were a brave client. They let us make a bunch of adventurous ads for them like “The Snowman”, “If” and “Fanny”. Every time I had a hangover, Irn-Bru got me through. But when we started Leithers Don’t Litter I began to notice a different side to our other national drink. And the question popped into my head: does Scotland love Irn-Bru more than Irn-Bru loves Scotland?
Leithers Don’t Litter isn’t just a 1300-plus Facebook community. We pick up litter two or three times a week. We work with Leith Academy teenagers to tidy up round the school. And at least once a month, we join forces with city council cleansing teams and our own followers to clean up The Shore. The coolest, most attractive corner of Edinburgh is ruined by rubbish – 27 bags of it on our last litter-pick alone.
Where I used to work there was a picture of a heron wading through the usual garbage patch in the Water Of Leith. Round its legs was a mixture of discarded drinks containers – Coke, Lucozade, Tennents and Red Bull. But the winner was Irn-Bru.
For some AG Barr shareholders I guess that would be proof enough of success to crack open the champers, never mind a can of ginger. But for the swans, eider ducks, moorhens and wagtails who feed or raise their young there, this plastic is lethal. And for the folk who have to dredge up the mess, it’s just plain soul-destroying.
Of course nobody should throw their empties away. We are Leithers Don’t Litter. We want our slogan to become a reality. Our problem is that Leithers do litter. The whole country does. Almost half of Scotland yearns for independence; the chance to take responsibility for our own destiny. Yet we haven’t even got the energy to put our energy drink cans in the bin.
Zsuzsa and I have lost count of the folk who’ve asked us “Why are you doing the council’s work?” The last time, Zsuzsa did her nut and said: “Because I don’t want to live in a s***hole!”
Last year, litter louts threw 120 tons of rubbish on to Scotland’s motorways. Flytipping and litter cost the Scottish economy an estimated £78 million.
Edinburgh’s own cleansing teams work miracles with shrinking resources. Holyrood has frozen the council tax for the last ten years and our environmental services are first to feel the budget cuts.
So it’s the perfect time for the big drink and food brands to help out. We’d like them to take far more responsibility for all the packaging on our streets. Instead they seem to be compounding the problem.
In January this year, the papers all carried a picture of an Irn-Bru can with “Keep Scotland Brutiful” printed on it in really big letters. I wrote to AG Barr congratulating them and asked if it was a special can to spread the environmental message. They didn’t get back to me.
Turns out it wasn’t a real Irn-Bru can at all. Just a picture of one on some window stickers encouraging shoppers to bin their litter and organise clean-ups in their community. They also invited the shop-owners to sign Keep Scotland Beautiful’s “Clean Up Scotland” pledge.
That’s a good start. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that on December 31 last year, after 110 years, they got rid of their famous returnable glass bottle. As kids we scoured the streets and parks for empties because when you took one back the shopkeepers gave you a few coins. If you collected a sackload you felt like a lottery winner.
AG Barr have a point when they say their own deposit system wasn’t well enough used. But if every drinks company in Scotland took part like they do in Canada, the United States (ten states), Australia (three states), Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Israel, Germany, Estonia Croatia and Lithuania – we would soon all get in the swing of it, the same way we now pay 5p for a plastic bag without blinking.
The former Scottish Environment Minister, Richard Lochhead, wanted our drinks industry to add between 10p and 20p to the price of soft drinks, alcohol and bottled water – money you would get back, or could give to charity, the minute you brought your empties back. Instead, AG Barr have joined forces with Coke, Tennents, Red Bull and nearly all the big bottled water brands to lobby against any kind of deposit return system.
Here’s what AG Barr’s head of marketing says: “We already have a roadside recycling system in Scotland – there is no need for a deposit return scheme when plastic gets collected anyway.”
That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another. This year, Zsuzsa and I drove to the Summer Isles for Valentine’s Day. She was in tears at the amount of rubbish on the verges. She has a challenge for Scotland’s drinks industry: “Drive up the M9. Every time you see one of your bottles or cans by the roadside, stop and pick it up. You’ll never get to Inverness.”
Companies who make their profits in this country need to do much more to protect it. They could do worse than listen to Saulius Galadauskas, head of the Lithuanian Brewers Association: “We feel an obligation to take care of our country, society and nature. That’s why we wanted to design a deposit return system that would work well for citizens, producers, importers and traders.”
But it’s not just about deposit return systems – we have to drastically reduce the amount of plastic we use. Our oceans are choking in plastic. Marine biologists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.
The Marine Conservation Society just published an alarming report that shows a 66 per cent increase in litter on Scottish beaches from 2014 to 2015. All our big brands need to start using materials that do less damage. McDonald’s should stop using plastic straws immediately. Takeaway drink lids are even more dangerous. The “resin code” on all Greggs takeaway cup lids is No 6. This means they’re polystyrene, a notoriously difficult plastic to recycle. A NZ stem cell scientist told us she was shocked to find out it was still legal in Scotland. It poses a measurable health risk when we drink through it because it leaches potentially toxic chemicals, especially when heated.
That’s why today we invite AG Barr and all the brands in our “Crapitalism” logo, to stop trying to clear their social consciences by sponsoring litter-picks or “Cleaning For The Queen” (I imagine she has enough cleaners already). Work with us to make radical changes. Reduce your packaging. Use more biodegradable materials and please, please change your minds about a deposit return system for Scotland.
Join us at The Creative Exchange in Leith this Friday 17 June at 6.30pm for the Official Opening of “Crapitalism – a rubbish exhibition”, staged by Leithers Don’t Litter. Together, we really can make Scotland Brutiful.