Everyday on the London Underground we drop 9·5 tonnes of newspapers

paper recycling thumbnail of newspaper

The swathes of discarded newspapers strewn throughout the London Underground network have unfortunately become part of the fabric of the world’s oldest underground train network. They are limp in the gutter as you walk to the station, pushed into your hand as you walk down the steps, waiting for you on the seat as you sit down on the tube, distracting you on your desk as you settle into work and thoughtfully presented in the sandwich shop across the street. A new ones waiting for you on your journey home and an old one’s there on the side when you get back.

These papers are no longer considered litter. Leaving one behind on the tube doesn’t warrant a second thought. They pile up on subterranean benches far from the closure of a recycling bin. A communal consideration for the subcontractors that have to carry them out.

What can be done?

There’s no easy way to stop people leaving papers behind. There is an undeniable demand for quick reads in the bleariness of the morning rush. The coffee keeps your eyes open and the late night film leaves your desire for literary exploration firmly book marked in the side pocket of your bag. Conversational opinions on current affairs need to be carefully sculpted to drive the monotonous office hours onwards. The vitamins advertised above the person opposite aren’t needed and if they were everyone’s already taken note. There’s only so long you can feign an interest in joint ache.

The sterile lighting and not enough time spent in front of a mirror knocks the confidence under which you normally relax when subjected to the unnervingly direct stranger gaze coming from opposite. The free newspaper is an appealing alternative. You might pick up on something interesting, there might be something to learn and it just might distract you from the unsettling crotch that’s being thrust into your face by the portly gentleman in the tightly fitted suit standing over you.

The underground culture that permits and allows careless, inconsequential littering is a strange one indeed. It may be that the presumption of a flawless recycling system allows people to justify leaving their papers behind rather than take them home or put them in outside bins. A quick fix would be to charge people for newspapers, forcing them to place value on disposable entertainment. However an established, successful business model isn’t going to change. Circulation numbers are high and people don’t hold the time or the mood to delay their commute with the futile quest for pocket change.

paper recycling image of a recycling symbol

Time for a change

Kindles, iPads, mp3 players, tablets, nintendos, books, pens, paper, drawing, sleep, thinking, debate, conversation, cognition, discussion. Learn a new skill, a new language, dream of the future, think about where you are and where your going beyond your 8am sharp running transfer onto the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line. There is no excuse for a lack of alternatives. Our insatiable desire to immerse ourselves in the goings on of others is something to be carefully considered and fought against. Technology aids and abets this prevalent trait. With one hand thousands of commuters swipe the digital page of a new age of e-reader literacy whilst with the other they lurk on social media sites, quite aware and powerless to their own accumulation of meaningless voyeuristic knowledge. The distraction of the World Wide Web is no longer escapable underground. Wi-fi can now be found in many underground stations. It fills the air with an information overload. We flick past murders with an uncomfortable grimace. Onto the next page.

It’s very difficult to change the value of a free newspaper. Editors understand the appeal of a newspaper that can be opened at one stop and closed at the next without further thought. There is certainly an argument for more valuable, thoughtful content of the kind that makes you put the paper in your bag to finish reading later. With longer, more specialised articles however, there is a risk that sections of the audience will be isolated. What is deemed valuable content for one person is rubbish for the next.

paper recycling thumbnail of commuters

We need newspapers to go down with her and come back up with him

To get people to take care of other peoples rubbish for no reward is something that understandably escapes the majority of the world’s population. In my own forays into this field whilst collecting hundreds of discarded papers to use for this project, my family-sized bag-for-life and I have been met with reactions ranging from curious bemusement to nervously raucous laughter. Unless you’ve got a uniform, a branded plastic bag and a pair of tongs this activity is not deemed normal and no amount of advertising, shouting, column inches or law is going to make it so. Despite this, newspapers do not behave entirely like conventional rubbish. The same paper is often picked up by several different people. They are more often than not clean and undamaged and the content of a newspaper does not change from the moment you pick it up to the moment you put it down.

The key to this problem could well be found in the study of this interesting dynamic. I think it is important to consider our inherent selfishness and reluctance to acknowledge that as individuals we can make a difference on a micro-scale. The recent adoption of crowdsourcing as a viable online business model has proven that value can be extracted from micro contributors in return for little or no reward. From crowdsourcing we are also learning that the individual values other factors such as peer-recognition alongside financial-gain. Online it is very easy to see how individual contributions affect the status-quo. I believe that taking the conditions that allow this system to sustain itself online and applying them to the real world has the potential to facilitate the completion of tasks such as clean waste collection.

70% recycled. 30% landfill

At the moment, discarded newspapers are collected by Transport for London (TFL) sub-contractors. Money to pay for this is factored into the yearly budget and I would argue that if this cost was addressed then more money would become available for the maintenance and improvement of London’s frequently unreliable and outdated transport network. Of all the papers that get collected, only 70% of these get recycled. At face value, this seems an impressive figure but when you consider the sheer volume of papers this still leaves a lot to be desired.

This problem needs solving

As the global population continues to grow exponentially, waste continues to be a worrying issue. We no longer live in an age of disposable resources and we are beginning to reap the consequences of the actions of those before us. If there has ever been a time to act it is now. Slow moving legislation, one of the seemingly necessary conditions of a functioning democracy hinders issues such as these and it is often easier to ignore or gloss over the problem than face the wide-ranging opposition and loss of public and corporate support should a decisive move such as the limitation of the distribution of free newspapers outside of transport hubs be made.

This is a problem that could be solved on an individual level. The provision of an incentive to encourage people to correctly dispose of newspapers other than their own outside of or inside of the transport network is a move that can be made without the need for dramatic, costly or controversial action.

paper recycling image of a folded newspaper

A fresh start for old news

Newspaper is an easy material to recycle. There are many things that it can be used for ranging from making more newspapers to cavity wall insulation. If value cannot be added to the content of the newspapers then it would be an exciting move to add value to the newspapers after they have been read. Named as city of the year 2012, London has become a covetable brand in itself. The imagery of the London Underground is known and recognised worldwide. Maps, souvenirs, posters and all manner of other artefacts are adjourned with the famous imagery of the London transport network. The idea of transforming London newspapers into desirable objects is not so far fetched. There is a large market for products associated with cities such as London. The transport network has clear, consistent and beautiful branding. It is a rare thing for the visual language of a public service to be covetable and this attribute is fairly unique to London. If branded correctly, objects made up of recycled London papers would I feel be appealing to Londoners and tourists alike.

In my own work this year, I have been making covers for notebooks out of newspapers collected on the London Underground. I believe products such as these could help to add value to newspapers previously considered eminently disposable.

Delays on the track

There is only so much good an advert can do. Advertising is part of our daily lives, whether we tolerate it, hate it or don’t mind it, there is not much we can do about it. It’s a necessary part of the world that we choose to live in. Most people pay it little attention and more still try to ignore it the best they can. Recently on the London Underground there has been a thoughtful, well-designed advertising campaign encouraging people to take their old newspapers home with them or discard of them properly. I would like to argue that the everyday commuter pays little attention to these adverts. When placed on a wall next to an advert for Papa John’s pizza and Lebara Mobile the value of the message decreases. These adverts try to communicate an important issue in the same space as adverts to which commuters are accustomed to visually ignoring. No matter how graphically desirable the poster is, it will always be held in the same subconscious space as hundreds of other less important messages that the intelligent consumer is well used to ignoring.

Advertising isn’t going to change the value that people put on their newspaper. Commuters are frequently of the opinion that by leaving their paper behind, they are passing it on to another commuter that didn’t get a chance to pick one up. The carriage floors covered with trampled paper beg to differ. The perception that this isn’t littering needs to change. The figures are alarming, TFL state that: ‘In 2011, 97 newspapers, 76 drinks cans and bottles, 20 fast food items and 61 other objects were caught in train doors causing delays to services. In total there were 327 litter related incidents which caused disruption on the network last year’. Newspapers are irrefutably litter and cause exactly the same problems.

paper recycling image of a tube station

The problem is piling up

The alarming fact of the matter is that the figure on which this paper is based, 9.5 tonnes, accounts for only three out of the eleven London Underground Lines. They are the Picadilly line, the Northern line and the Jubilee line. This is the only recorded figure on the subject and it is therefore the only one that can be considered factual. We know though that papers are in fact being dropped on all lines in exactly the same manner. The actual figure is likely to be four times the recorded amount. The list of free papers and magazines is also lengthening. Time Out is the latest London publication to have become free. It is given out on Tuesdays at every transport hub, dramatically increasing its circulation.

Is our expectation of free content fuelling this shift? We can access vast amounts of reading material just by switching on our smartphones or by opening our laptops. We are beginning to expect films and other previously monetised content to be available for free or at a low cost, monthly commitment. Traditional hierarchical media institutions are having an increasingly hard time persuading us why we should part with our hard-earned cash. This is likely to become ever more pervasive as we become further immersed in the Information Age.

Out of pocket, into pocket

Travelling in London doesn’t come cheap. Admittedly its not comparable to the cost of running a car but it is still a point of contention for the many that feel the overcrowded carriages and high pollution levels don’t justify the cost of a travel card. It is easy to understand why commuters may feel they are not getting enough back from a service which, at rush hour, demands close quarters combat and intimate casual encounters of the kind paired with frequent and awkward apologies.

Reward cards and loyalty schemes keep us shopping in the same places. Money-off vouchers, tailored to individual shopping habits are mailed to homes across the nation. Consumers like to feel that they are getting something back. No matter how disproportionate these rewards are, they appear to demonstrate respect. The consumer feels that their loyalty is not being ignored. This further enforces brand loyalty and a positive feedback cycle ensues.

If we were to apply a similar scheme to a system like the London Underground, people might begin to treat the network differently. A system that rewarded people for frequent travel or for micro-tasks such as collecting newspapers would be held in higher regard. Under the influence of successful crowdsourcing applications, a social recognition or reputation system would provide added support to small monetary compensation. The social tools which would allow such a system are already in place and the idea that commuters would be actively motivated to pick up after other people is one that would allow both TFL and the general public to cut costs.

clean commute image

The clean commute

I hope that in the coming years the move towards fleeting, free and infinitely disposable content will be seen as a short-lived error. Devices such as the Amazon Kindle are beginning to change the way we entertain ourselves in the midst of the daily grind. I do not think that we should sit back and wait for this to happen as it is something which can be resolved without the need for dramatic, divisive legislation. I hope to continue working on this problem as I believe that a reputation system that rewards commuters for picking up newspapers would be an innovative solution to an issue which has proven both costly and difficult to achieve through centralised measures.

There is a lot that can be done with an old newspaper. The recent revitalization of the arts and crafts movement could help to turn the rags of old into covetable, valued objects. This is something that could drive itself. A perfectly pitched tutorial has the potential to inspire thousands to pick up an extra paper and value an object previously not considered to be worth even carrying to the bin. These papers have potential. Old news is good news.