The Great British Spring Clean takes place from Friday 17 March to 2 April, focusing on taking on the litter problem. Keep Britain Tidy (KBT) says that 8.5 million adults already litter-pick, but this initiative aims to encourage even more to tidy their communities. During the Spring Clean, people pledge to collect as many bags of rubbish as possible. Spring is a good time for it: you can see it before it’s hidden by growing weeds.
I spoke to teacher Emma Powell, who is a KBT Ambassador in Castle Point, Essex, about her experiences and why she does it.
Benefits of litter-picking
The first thing Emma emphasises is that she enjoys it. “It’s great exercise and gets you outside with other people,” she says. She has made many local friends in the nearly four years since starting Castle Point Clean-Up Crew, a group which operates with the support of Keep Britain Tidy.
Their Facebook group now has nearly 1,200 members, and every week, she is joined by perhaps a dozen to litter-pick specific neighbourhoods in Castle Point. Emma says people find it helps their mental and physical wellbeing, and they feel more connected to their community. The group plans litter-picks in Canvey Island, Hadleigh and South Benfleet for the Spring Clean weekends.
It really got going a couple of years ago, explains Emma. A lot of rubbish had built up during the lockdowns. Many people had got used to a daily walk, and then continued it with the added purpose of clearing the rubbish.
What do they find?
Anything and everything. They have found disposable barbecues, shoes, wheels, glasses, cigarettes, an air rifle, laptops, knives and emptied charity tins from shops. Emma says they get a lot of support from the local Police Community Support Officer if they find anything suspicious.
She and her teams will pick up anything. The most unpleasant is probably broken glass and dog poo bags, but the team is equipped with heavy-duty gloves, litter pickers and high-vis jackets. Occasionally, they find fly-tipping which is too much for them, and inform the council. The team can collect many sacks – the record is 21 – and they alert the council where they leave them for collection.
Most of the rubbish found is plastic bottles, packets, drink cans, disposable vapes and nitrous oxide canisters. Once people have eaten their sweets, or finished their drink, they often just drop the packaging without a second thought. It’s not a new problem. Emma has found crisp packets with 1980s sell-by dates. Vapes are a newer phenomenon; recently they collected 15 disposable vapes and vape boxes in half an hour.
Nitrous oxide is becoming a huge issue, not only for the risks to young people using it as a psychoactive substance, but also for the litter it creates. Emma says the use of nitrous oxide seems to have escalated, and last week they collected 660 small silver canisters and 55 large ones. All these in black sacks are heavy, but the pickers always clear them.
Why is this necessary?
Unfortunately, people do drop litter. Sometimes it’s accidental, sometimes deliberate. If bins are overflowing, people still leave their rubbish next to them. In windy weather it is even worse: rubbish blows everywhere, making the team’s work more difficult.
Emma believes that in our throwaway society, people don’t care about items that have no value to them. You can recognise social trends from litter: the pickers have become knowledgeable about anti-social behaviour and wasteful consumerism. Eating and drinking outdoors is more common these days, and everything you buy now is encased in plastic.
Children can be educated about litter problems, and are receptive when they hear about risks to wildlife – but as they grow older and socialise outdoors with friends, there is often teenage peer pressure to leave litter behind.
What’s the answer?
Emma feels the open parks are slightly clearer now. When people see the pickers in action, it makes them think about what they do with their litter; perhaps feeling too guilty to drop it. The group now has more time to delve into out-of-the-way areas like the undergrowth. Staff at food outlets clean up any discarded packaging from their area; it’s bad publicity if there’s litter lying around.
In a nutshell, Emma thinks the situation has worsened because ‘packaging has increased, it has no value, and there are no sanctions’. She believes companies should work proactively towards less packaging; and embrace the ‘reduce/re-use’ approach which environmentalists recommend. She also wants more enforcement of litter regulations, and welcomes the proposed deposit return scheme for bottles and cans which may start in 2025.
Cleaning up your neighbourhood
It’s sad that it’s left to public-spirited people to clean up our environment, and that their task seems endless, but thankfully they do continue and even find it rewarding.
If you are interested in getting involved in your own neighbourhood, you can find more information here.