ARCHIVE: Laws against littering

  • Did you know it's a criminal offence to drop litter?
  • Do you know what the maximum fine is and who can prosecute?
  • Can you be fined for throwing litter from a car?
  • Who can issue fixed penalties?
The offence of littering

People who carelessly discard litter in any open place are committing a criminal offence. (Except where it is allowed by law or done with the consent of the owner or occupier of the land). This includes private as well as public land, and land covered by water.

Prosecutions for littering are brought under section 87 - Offence of Leaving Litter - of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The offence is:

"A person is guilty of an offence if he throws down, drops or otherwise deposits any litter in any place to which this section applies and leaves it.”

However, a person convicted of this offence could be liable to a maximum fine of £2,500 (a level 4 offence on the standard scale).

What is litter?

The term "litter" has a very wide interpretation. As well as wrappers, cans, bottles, or packaging "litter" includes food, small items such as receipts and sweet wrappings and materials discarded during waste management and business operations. The legislation also states specifically that chewing gum and smoking-related materials are types of litter. As a guideline, a single sack of rubbish should generally be regarded as fly-tipping rather than litter. The offence relates to what is done with the litter, rather than what it is.

Natural matter such as overgrown vegetation, weeds or leaves which have fallen from trees are not classed as litter.

Dog faeces are classed as "refuse", not litter. Local authorities and other responsible bodies must remove them from land and highways as part of their section 89 (Environmental Protection Act 1990) duty to keep land free from litter and refuse. However separate laws apply in relation to controls on dog fouling.

Prosecutions

Prosecutions are usually undertaken by the local authorities, but the police and private individuals can also prosecute. Cases are heard in the local Magistrate's Court.

If you witness a littering offence you can report it to your local authority and they will decide if legal action is appropriate. You should gather as much evidence as possible to support your case, such as the time, precise location, a description of the litter and identity of the litterer. If the case goes to court and the accused pleads not guilty you may be called upon to give evidence. However, it is common for the accused to plead guilty by letter and for the case to be dealt with in his/her absence. As an alternative to prosecution, the police or the local authority may warn or caution the litterer.

It is possible for the citizen to pursue a private prosecution. However, you will need strong evidence to prove your case, preferably with a witness. Legal aid will not be available. We recommend you seek professional advice before proceeding.

Litter thrown from vehicles

Throwing litter from vehicles onto public land is also a littering offence under section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

If the registration number is taken the registered keeper's identity can be obtained from the Driver Vehicle and Licensing Agency by the police or the local authority. Witnesses should note whether the driver or passenger threw the litter and take a good description of the vehicle and offender so that this can be provided as evidence. Offences can be reported to the police or local authority and they will decide whether to take further action.

Fixed penalties

As an alternative to taking litterers to court, a local authority can appoint officers to issue fixed penalty notice fines to people they catch dropping litter. This has the benefit of dealing with littering as and where it happens. The offender is given 14 days in which to pay the fixed penalty fine. If it is not paid he/she can be prosecuted as laid out above.

The fixed penalty fine for littering is between £50 and £80 – local authorities have the freedom to set the amount for their area within these limits. Local authorities may also offer discounts for prompt payment, although the discounted rate cannot be lower than the bottom limit of £50.

Disposing of litter
  • Put litter in a bin
  • If there are no bins: TAKE YOUR LITTER HOME

Page last modified: 30 March 2007
Page published: 1 June 1999