A couple of months ago, I became a signed-up, official Volunteer Litter-Picker for Cambridge City Council. This came about because I get furious about litter all the time, but had no idea what to do about it in any systematic way until I met, at the Friends of Cherry Hinton Brook biannual litter-pick, a nice gentleman who had his own kit, including a clever device for holding a bin bag open in one hand while wielding one’s litter-picker (which I have discovered also works for weeds, if the soil is moist) with the other.
We got chatting, and I discovered that Volunteer Litter-Picker for Cambridge City Council is actually a thing, so I applied, roping in the usual two old friends to act as referees – though neither of them of course could actually bear witness to my litter-picking skills and acumen. Not long afterwards, I received a lot of health-and-safety-related information and instructions, had an online induction, and, soon after, my own kit was delivered.
Since then I have been out on many forays in my immediate area, and learned very rapidly that in some senses it is completely pointless – retracing my steps the following day, I see all the new stuff that has been dumped in only 24 hours, and I have to say that it is rather spoiling our regular exercise walks that I now scan the pavements from gutter to curtilage, head down and swaying like that of an elderly tortoise, rather than saying ‘Hello sky, hello trees’ in my usual Fotherington-Thomas manner. (It goes without saying that Him Indoors wouldn’t be seen dead with me on my excursions, and they are in any case, like golf, a good walk spoiled, as I have to proceed quite slowly.)
Some areas are totally predictable – just round the corner from Tesco Metro is the space where people eat their snacks and drink their drinks and drop the wrappings, and in the bit of road where the taxis park while waiting for a space outside the railway station, the gutter is always full of cigarette butts.
I am aghast at how many people still smoke – and feel inclined to write to Bill Gates and ask if, in between saving the world, he could instruct his Cambridge office to put up a butts bin for its workers, so that they can stop dropping their fag-ends into the planting holes of the trees on either side of the doorway. (The trees further away have many fewer.) After a lot of effort, and thanks to lockdown and winter, I have almost succeeded in clearing them out, and I don’t want my work undermined by the return of smart IT people, who yet are stupid enough to smoke, in the spring.
Predictably, one of the most frequent finds at the moment is the bog-standard pale blue facemask (designer ones are much less often dropped).
I presume these fall out of people ‘s pockets as they pull out gloves, phone, tissues, whatever; and that the tissues and gloves fall out as people try to pull out their masks? (I haven’t found a phone yet.) Bottle tops get everywhere, but especially in gutters, where some have been ground into the tarmac and simply can’t be lifted out. Rubber bands, plastic ties of all types and lengths, odd unidentifiable bits of broken something, those sinister, shiny small steel canisters (yes, even in our genteel neighbourhood),
shop receipts, train tickets, empty bottles and cans of alcohol from beer to whisky and vodka, all are grist to the mill. In fact I have just acquired a small wheeled shopping trolley in which to put my bin bag and ring device, as it only takes about four bottles for the weight of the bag to become more than I can manage in my dotage, and I can get four empty bottles a trip within a hundred yards of our house, no problem.
I inadvertently pick up quite a lot of leafmould while I’m at it, as paper and plastic regularly get entwined with fallen and decomposing leaves in the un-brushed-out gutters of our side roads, while a new generation of grasses and wildflowers is growing in the undisturbed compost, especially around the drains, most of which are clogged and create standing pools of water in which paper turns to mush.
I am a bit torn about orange peel: this is from the people who sit in their cars to eat their lunch and throw anything they don’t want out of the window. On the one hand it will degrade naturally; on the other, it takes a long time to do so, and I’m not aware that it feeds any of the local wildlife, so I do pick it up.
The oddest thing I have tackled so far is an entire chicken skeleton. No idea whether it was a discarded human meal, stripped to the bones by rats, or a local chicken (there are some) made off with by a fox – but then there would have been more feathers, presumably. I could, I suppose, have left it there to continue breaking down, but it was pretty visible, and so, thinking of the relentless curiosity of my own grandchildren, I decided to move it (and quite an anatomy lesson it turned out to be) rather than allow some hapless parent to have it waved in their face with the question, ‘Mummy, what’s this?’
There have also been (used) nappies, and those little bags of dog excrement which I had assumed were intended to be taken home by the dogs’ owners rather than dropped behind a lamp-post. (In Venice once, I watched an elderly man pick up his elderly dog’s poo in a plastic bag, tie the bag neatly and throw it into the canal …) At this point I should probably explain that the kit includes two layers (latex and heavy-duty cloth and rubber) of gloves, and I am supposed to pick up nothing with my heavily protected hands – I rarely want to (!) and in any case they make my fingers so clumsy that I usually can’t.
How long has (non-biodegradable) litter on the streets been with us? After all, people threw broken pottery, shells and animal bones on to middens, rather than just dropping them, as long ago as the Bronze Age. That the problem existed much earlier than (even) my lifetime is demonstrated by E. Nesbit. In The Story of the Amulet (1906) a mother of the future describes a William Morris/Fabian Society-type Utopia, where ‘The Duties of Citizenship’ is on the school curriculum and is taught via verses such as ‘I must not litter the beautiful street / With bits of paper and things to eat’.
And before that, of course, there was Mr Nicodemus Boffin, the Golden Dustman of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864–5), possibly based on Henry Dodd, who carried London’s waste (including of course a great deal of human and animal excrement) into the countryside on barges, for use as fertiliser – has anyone ever examined how many of the scattered potsherds, bones and bit of metal found by field-walkers and detectorists (best television series of the 21st century, by the way) were dropped not by careless passers-by but as collateral damage from sewage?
From memory, the state of the streets started to get worse in the 1970s, when many litter bins were removed because of the risk of the IRA planting bombs in them; but also (I believe), because, from about the same time, as more and more throwaway things (especially fast food and drink containers) have entered our lives, less attention is being paid to the civic/civil code which urged us to take our litter home. I am right in remembering that there used to be TV ads about this, aren’t I?
The first time I visited Switzerland (in 1981), I was stunned by the cleanliness of the streets by comparison with what I was used to at home – but the rot really set in at the end of the 90s. In Prague, in blisteringly hot weather, I first saw people walking around with individual plastic bottles of water (or something stronger), and then suddenly everyone was doing it, in every city in the world. (A bit like selfie-sticks a decade or so later.) Who remembers when it was unusual to see anyone drinking in the street, or eating anything larger than a sweet? (At my secondary school, a teacher was on bus-stop duty to confiscate any sweets bought at the shop just outside and chewed while we waited for the bus.)
Having just looked up ‘Keep Britain Tidy’, I find that it was started as a campaign in 1954, by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, and became a charity in the 1960s. I also discover that since 2005 you can be fined £75 for dropping a cigarette butt, among other fixed penalty notices for littering, under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environments Acts – terrific news, but who enforces it?
I took all the photos of rubbish (and many more) while walking round to the postbox in my lunch-hour on Monday. As today is a non-work day, I’ll post this blog and then go out and pick up all those bits (and more). So if you’re in the locality and see a hunched old lady in an orange hi-vis jacket, wheeling a purple trolley with implausible butterflies on it, do say hello – one of the perks of the job is that lots of random strangers thank me for my efforts.
PS! Back from my pick, which I had to abandon as darkness fell: endless cigarette butts, five drink cans, four blue masks, three silver cylinders, two rubber gloves, but no partridge in a pear tree …