Paul's Place

Litter picking in the Park

First day, not the best start. As instructed, I enter the yard at the back of the Visitor Centre (access restricted to personnel wearing hi-vis vests only, so I’m not quite legit at this stage) and go in through the back door. I am introduced by the volunteer supervisor to the rest of that morning’s work gang; several Daves, as far as I tell, a Pete, I think, a Darren, a Brian and a couple of others whose names, I know, I will probably never get.  Why?  Because I’m quite shy in groups, and I already know that I won’t want to work in a team (are they all litter pickers? Six or seven would be quite a lot) under someone else’s instructions. There’s immediately lots of noisy banter between men who look like they’ve worked together for a while – peals of laughter whenever one of the Daves speaks.  I’ll call him senior Dave, for reasons, who is also a volunteer.  He’s complaining about something or someone and in a way that looks par for his particular course, given the group’s exaggerated hilarity, twitched-up eyebrows and knowing nods. He’s off again. I’ve put on my joining-in face, a faint fixed grin so everyone can see I’m, well, joining in. Senior Dave turns out to be one of the longest serving volunteers there; knowledgeable, sharp-edged and bossy.  A contender for unofficial supervisor, vying with the real one, Terry, for people’s attention, obedience even; the hierarchy is already taking shape.  I’ve been there for about 10 minutes.

Cups of coffee are being made by a couple of people before we start work, but only for themselves; knowledge of where all the makings are kept, how, when and whether it’s OK to put the kettle on – all this is to be acquired through a process of osmosis.  Months later, I realise I still haven’t got it.

It turns out I’m being paired up with another chap who’s starting today as a litter picker.  But he hasn’t shown up yet and I need to be inducted into the proper ways, means and pitfalls with him. All the others do gardening things, clearing leaves, fetching and carrying, planting out, grubbing up and cutting back.  Would I like to do that instead?  No thanks.  I really do want to pick litter.

While we wait for the other chap, I’m issued with my hi-vis vest.  I’m then told to join the rest of the gang to arrange some fencing in the middle of the Park to make an enclosure around a large patch of worn grass, which is about to be re-seeded. We traipse up the hill from the office and wait in an uncertain gaggle by stacks of metal barriers for further instructions.  Our real boss tries to explain what’s needed to create a ring fence big enough to protect the designated patch, but no one is at all clear about what he wants. Random clusters in twos and threes start to heave barriers into place regardless, hooking one into the other to create a series of solid lines.  But it’s obvious that we don’t know how big the enclosure is supposed to be or where exactly it’s got to go, and no one is telling us.  Different and competing opinions soon emerge, as do different versions of the fenced-off area.  My unease grows. I don’t want to be part of this.  I can’t bear the underlying tension made by this chaos, nor can I resolve my increasingly strong and conflicting desire to fuck off or take over. My joining-in face has gone now, to be replaced by a grimace of dissatisfaction – what have I got myself into?  I’m even starting to comment on the scene before me, under my breath of course (but almost certainly using one of my family-famous stage whispers). I’ve been here for about an hour now. Somehow the fence is erected in the right place. 

Senior D decides we can’t wait for my picking partner any longer, checks with Terry (in a telling him kind of way) that it’s probably best just to get on with it and show me the ropes. He takes me to the storage garage back at the yard, opens the cupboard where I can load up with black bags, protective eyewear and heavy duty gloves, teaches me the key safe code, garage door mechanism and where I might find a litter picker stick.  I later learn just how elusive these grabbers can be. They hide away in all sorts of corners from one week to the next, on the back of trailers, hanging up on fences, and anywhere else the last picker happened to drop them at the end of their shift.  We head back up to the eastern edge of the Park.

The serious business of litter picking induction starts here.  Open grassy areas and pathways in the Park should be covered by routine Park Patrols, so no need to bother with these.  The hotspots for recalcitrant litter nestle deep inside dense, wiry clumps and lumps of undergrowth, under bushes, behind tree stumps and under fallen branches, up the steep sides of the wooded wilderness area. They’re hiding, too, in thick hedgerows, in wide shrubby borders and along tricky fence lines. So getting at the rubbish in these places can be hazardous. David eyes me up and down, decides we’re about the same age (which I doubt – he’s a few years younger, I think) and so fit enough to slalom through the undergrowth, up hill and down dale, stick and bag in hand, without incident. But still, take care, no unnecessary risks, always wear your gloves and safety specs; phone for help if you get into any kind of trouble.  See you later.

Now I am free, alone and without a leader. Perfect.  It transpires that the other half of the picker team that day, the man who hadn’t shown up in the morning, wasn’t due anyway till I knock off at lunchtime.  So I’d better catch him before I leave and do a handover then.  He does turn up and I talk and walk him through the ground I’ve covered that morning.  The handover routine works well enough over the next few weeks until one day he stops coming.  Nobody knows why or hears from him again.  Our brief encounters, though, proved interesting and quite touching.  Although he lived in Stowmarket, he didn’t drive and came in by train each week. He’d been a boy at school in Ipswich 50 or so years ago. He remembered vividly his weekly cross-country runs here in the Park, chasing up the steepest slopes and tumbling back down again, pushing and shoving with his mates. He loved this place and wanted to honour it somehow by keeping it tidy. Years of tough manual labour replacing track for the railways had destroyed some of his vertebrae, which were now kept in place with steel plates and pins. So he had limited mobility and almost no flexibility in his lower back.  Litter picking was going to be quite a challenge. Perhaps it proved to be too much for him.  In the few weeks we worked together, he’d always talk about seeing me next week “God willing”.   

Over the next month or so, other volunteers begin to reveal things about themselves, by tone of voice, topics of conversation, reactions to the boys’ banter – things that hint at why they’re there. Darren, a man in his late 30s maybe, works several days a week in the Park. Soon after I started, he’d shown up wearing a rather alarming skull mask, entering into the spirit of Halloween, he said. This made people feel a little uneasy, embarrassed perhaps, but they’d not said much until senior Dave launched a full-frontal; what are people supposed to make of this weird looking man in a Borough Council jerkin roaming round the Park? What about the kids?  Darren was defensive and offended at first, then angry. Tempers calmed but Darren was kind of hollowed out by the whole thing for some time afterwards. We would exchange pleasantries from time to time. He was cautious and self-effacing, friendly enough, but he did say he’d always wanted to be employed in the Park, gardening, Park Patrol, anything really. He’d been invited to apply for a few jobs there in the past, never expecting to get very far. He was right, he never had. Darren was vulnerable, lacked confidence, wasn’t well. Probably hadn’t been for years. And he wasn’t alone. Some of the others, senior David as well, I think, need the Park for their mental well-being; somewhere to be accepted at no or low risk of being judged. Somewhere their private selves can find a place to be in a public space without being thought odd (or if they are, with no one really bothering much about it). I think David suffers from anxiety and maybe this is what makes him touchy and tricky.  Volunteering everywhere makes room for troubled souls and misfits.

Back to the litter picking proper: my first go was up the eastern edge of the Park inside the fence line. This is mostly rigid metal railings at the top end, but before that a mix of back garden fencing, a detour round the old bowling greens and then some deep bushy borders.  These thickets can be found throughout the Park. The invitation to poke around, to see what’s what in their numerous secret hideaways and clearings within, is irresistible. Once you’re in the thick of it, the rewards for the novice litter picker can be great.

It’s these, the least accessible places, that attract me most. I quickly begin to see and then search for clusters of rubbish that form family groups; things that seem over time always to appear together – empty booze bottles, broken glass, cans, cups and food cartons; fag packets and papers, used condoms and scrunched up balls of silver foil; sweet wrappers, crisp packets, straws, dog-ends, more cans and plastic bottles. Lots of plastic bottles.  Some of this stuff has been in there for ages, I reckon - months if not years.  It’s pretty obvious that no one else had had the guts to get in there and sort these bad boys out. Out of sight, out of …. you get my drift. So it’s up to me, going in for a deep clean - extreme litter picking.

After an hour or so, it’s nearly lunchtime.  I’ve filled one bag to bursting and made a decent start on a second. Back at the office to sign out, I’m asked how I got on and am proud to announce my morning’s haul; two bags in such a short time is clearly a record. Next week, it’ll be the nature and bird reserve area. It’s a tempting prospect if this week is anything to go by. So, a disappointing start to the day perhaps, but a triumphant end. I can’t wait.

There’s a definite art and some craft to the whole business. Take the picker-stick-grabber. This is a thing of beauty, a triumph of simple engineering once you learn how to use it properly. For example, it took me ages to discover that you can pick up several pieces of wind-blown rubbish – an unused dog poo bag and a torn up letter from the DWP, say - in one sweep.  You don’t have to grab and bag each item individually. You can, with care, snatch the poo bag, swing it across to that scrap of annoying news from the benefits office, open your grabber jaws very slightly (taking care not to lose your first item) and trap the scrap as well; very satisfying, with no unpleasant extra lifting. The other tip is to close your jaws before heading in for the kill in thick bushes or very tight spots, such as through small gaps in hedges or the holes in chain link fencing.  Leave your grab-end open as you go in and you’re headed for snag central. Keep it snapped up nice and tight and you’ll be in with a clear run at your target, opening your killer mandibles just before you make contact.

By now, I realise that the kind of high end litter picking that I, uniquely, am perfecting is more like hunting than scouring.

The other remarkable feature of the stick is its lightness of touch and precision.  It’s no accident that the pincer end is designed to work exactly like the thumb and forefinger in a human hand.  Absolutely brilliant, capable of picking up the tiniest fragment of a sodden till receipt, for instance, or the flattened outline of an aluminium ring-pull. Bottle tops are possible, too, even the ones that have begun to sink into the soft earth.    

Talking of hunting, over the following weeks I find it increasingly difficult to walk in the Park for pleasure, or anywhere else for that matter, without eagle-eyeing the ground for bits of flotsam - on grass verges, under hedgerows, along windswept pavements and roadside gutters. I’m not sure how to release myself from this affliction. Is there a Litter Pickers Anonymous group I could join, or maybe even set up?  I’ll have to give that some further thought.

After a few half days on the job, I come up with an aid memoire to the essentials of litter picking – the seven or eight great Fs (phonetically speaking) of our trade.  In no particular order of merit, scale or outrage:

  1. Fags – empty cigarette packets and baccy pouches, stray Rizlas, flimsy tubes of filter tips for roll-ups, and of course hundreds of dog-ends. Apart from park benches, the other popular locations for these things are drug den hideaways in thick bushy borders and wooded areas. Lots of liquid leftovers in these places too, which brings us to ….  
  2. Fizzy drinks – a broad church that covers beers and ciders, Pepsis, cokes and all other sugar hits in between. So there are plenty of empty cans, but also lots of plastic pop bottles, expanded polystyrene cups, and innumerable plastic straws; plus half-buried, often broken, remains of heavy glass bottles – clear for spirits (Vodka’s popular), brown for beer. Curiously, quite a number of these aren’t completely empty, especially for some reason those containing the extra strong brews favoured by serious al fresco drinkers. Why don’t they finish them? Why hurl them over the fence half full? Seems like a waste of anti-social effort to me.
  3. Food – where to start on this one? Big name fast food outlets come top, of course, offering glimpses of eager, open-jawed food trays nesting in dank undergrowth (their meal deal coke cup companions just an arm’s throw away).  Shards of white plastic forks, triangular sandwich wraps, crisp and biscuit packets, cellophane sweet wrappers, and long lost and forgotten takeaways – all feature heavily here.     
  4. Fornication (aka fucking) – used condoms, of course, and their discarded sachets, but also the odd item of underwear (boys’ and girls’, weirdly).  Furtive manoeuvres in the dark park.   
  5. Pharmaceuticals (phonetics needed here) – worrying remains of heavy drug use in the most secret places, the drug dens, as the Park Patrol people call them; silver foil balls, tiny glass phials and used sharps. Used needles have to be left in situ and reported immediately to staff who come straightaway and dispose of them safely. I have only found a few over the months, probably just the ones paid staff have missed during their routine searches.   
  6. Thieving  (that’s Feevin’ to you and me) – it might be a seasonal thing, spiking around Christmas, or so I thought when I first came across stuff that was obviously left over from a spot of thieving in late December.  I’d nearly completed one of my forensic skirmishes up one of the dissecting pathways (not really my patch, but what the hell) when I spot a ripped open cardboard box lying empty on the ground by the top gate. On the outside, an illustration of a spider-like drone, but with the machine itself missing. Someone’s intended Christmas present, perhaps (no, probably), which I bag up with a disapproving ‘tut’.  But then I see another one, this time intact, stuck in a hedge over the fence. The contents are undisturbed - a perfect, working model of a battery powered helicopter, so an equally expensive, very grown-up, toy. But why disgorge the drone and dump this thing? Was one more fun, a bit cooler, than the other? It’s obviously much less saleable once it’s out of its box. There’s a story here. As there is with the empty Primark carrier bag, hangers and labels once displaying a couple of inexpensive women’s tops, stuffed into a bush behind the tennis courts one spring morning. So theft isn’t seasonal after all. You’ll find the remains of nicked iPhones, quite a good wrist watch one day, cheap jewellery, bikes bits and pieces of other people’s treasures, all year round. Obviously. And there’s a story attached to every one of them.
  7. Fly-tipping – it takes a lot of effort to heave old toilet seats, bits of wardrobe, an electric ceiling fan, bike frames and tins of rock-hard paint over a fence and into the Park. But someone has to do it, so good luck to them I say. Except I don’t. What I really say is lock ‘em up, throw the key over a fence and wait for a litter picker to find it (a very long time later).  There.  Said it.
  8. Forlorn – although the word doesn’t quite play by the grammatical rules of this list, it is the only one that captures the bedraggled remnants of homeless hideouts. I’ve stumbled across a few of these. There might be a track suit top, some bottoms and a jumper strewn around a sodden sleeping bag, a crumpled back pack and a shoe, a single shoe, with a limp sock hanging in a bush nearby. There’ll often be a few empty booze bottles and cans of strong cider, too. Once, a used sharp. These shelters look like they’ve been abandoned as furtively as they were set up. Whatever becomes of the poor sods who sleep under these trees and bushes, or in the ditch by the fence down there?

Littering is a social thing. By this I mean you get to know that when two or more people gather together in certain places, predictable clusters of crud and crap will be left behind.  This might be around a park bench, under trees or in slightly out of sight glades in the woods. What sorts of people?  Well, teenagers immediately spring to mind, I suppose because they’re a bit noisier than other age groups and so more noticeable.  But they are noticed precisely because they don’t hide away in the shadows so much as sit in loud circles in the middle of the Park.  Any littering they do there is in full public view.  Of course there those amongst them who really don’t give a damn and will leave casual piles of picnic litter behind as a kind of statement. Families with kids do this, too, perhaps out of ignorance rather than defiance. But I reckon the real culprits are the ones with something to conceal – their drinking, sexual antics, drug taking or dealing. 

None of this is to suggest that the lone litterer is any less culpable or prolific. They’re just less predictable, random offenders, almost by definition.

Litter picking is largely invisible to the general public.  I don’t mean people can’t see you doing it. I mean most folk don’t make eye contact; they look through or passed you. The odd one or two will say hello and, more rarely, a ‘thank you for keeping this lovely place tidy’ and a ‘what a shame people don’t know how to behave. Why do they do it? There are plenty of bins about. I just don’t know, do you?’ The answer is I don’t know either. I suppose it’s a mixture of bravado, ignorance, defiance, more ignorance and simple carelessness.  If places appear not to be cared for, people will care less. This sets a self-perpetuating cycle in motion. Keeping the place clean breaks the cycle and sends subliminal messages out to everyone about what’s the right thing to do with their rubbish. There’s a sense of calm and order you get when somewhere is kept clear and clean; it actually helps people feel safe. Otherwise, we imagine all sorts of hooded hoards lurking around unkempt street corners and in shady parks, just waiting to jump out on us. 

Paul, November 2018