One can too many

Last summer I discovered how much noise an empty shopping trolley can make at night, when you wheel it over anything other than a smooth shop floor. I’d seen four teenagers taking it home from Westway Cross retail park and followed them almost to their front door before taking charge of it and wheeling it back to where it belonged. I didn’t want to wake up the next morning to the news that an accident had been caused by its being left on Greenford Flyover. The price I paid for this good deed was an unexpected level of embarrassment as neighbours who would have at least nodded to me in passing looked to see where all the noise was coming from at that time of night and ducked out of sight again very quickly. At least I got a pound coin out of it. That kind of anti-social behaviour I can cope with, a one off, but others have become noticeable in Greenford over the last few years that are less easily dealt with.

The first is littering, especially with beer cans. There has always been some litter in the area but recently empty cans have really made their presence felt. In the mornings open spaces across Greenford glitter with reminders of the previous night’s drinking session. They nestle in hedges, sit on garden walls and embellish any gate or fence they can be wedged into. They are everywhere and it looks dreadful. Most of the time I’m not around when those responsible for leaving them there are still drinking from them but on the occasions I have what struck me was that most of the offenders are adults I wouldn’t expect to behave in that way. It was a neatly dressed, well groomed man I saw push a can into a hedge as he passed it, without breaking his stride. It’s middle aged men relaxing with beers on the Grand Union tow path after a long hard day who leave carrier bags full of empty cans dangling from trees and under benches in Greenford’s recreation grounds. These are not rough sleeping, alcoholics lurking on benches, nursing one can until they can beg enough for the next one, or teenagers getting wasted on booze they aren’t old enough to buy legally. Today’s outdoor drinkers are usually groups of people who are in full time employment choosing to socialise in the open air, turning up at their favoured spot with lots of beer which they consume before going home.

Those over a certain age in the UK may remember a campaign that told you to “Take your litter home with you” but it seems that few feel obliged to do that any more. They don’t see why they should keep the wrappers from their cigarette packets or confectionary in their pockets until they get home. If a bin isn’t in their line of vision (or even if one is) they abandon them because they believe it is their right to do so. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that someone will, in the end, have to be paid to clear it away, making life more expensive for everyone. There is the additional problem that when drinks containers are collected as litter they go into landfill rather than being recycled because there isn’t a system in place for it. It isn’t the street cleaner’s job to sort out what they collect. That can’t be doing the borough’s recycling record much good. It would be helpful if there was an option to recycle cans and bottles alongside bins but I’m not sure that the supply would keep up with the demand. I’ve seen carrier bags full of cans stacked up against overflowing bins in parks before now as the more responsible drinkers make an effort so it may take larger bins to cope with all of it.

There’s no doubt that the presence of large quantities of litter undermines the quality of life for residents in Greenford but those dropping it are either oblivious to the impact of their behaviour on their surroundings or assume that there will always be someone around to clean up after them. They can see that others drop litter which seems to give them permission to do the same. In the Seventh Report of Session 2014–15 on “Litter and fly-tipping in England” the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee said “The appearance of our environment can have an impact on how we feel about a place. As David Sedaris, author, broadcaster and anti-litter campaigner, commented: “Why should everyone have to live in a teenager’s bedroom? […] I don’t care where you live, I don’t care how much money you have. To have to walk through filth is no way to live”. Litter can also affect how we behave so that litter tends to attract more litter. Yet it is a phenomenon which could be avoided entirely if individuals simply placed their rubbish in a bin or took it home.” (1, p7)

It may be that “home” is part of the problem, if “home” is temporary, a shared house where even the living room has been rented out as a bedroom. If there is no social space within that property and the tenants are not allowed to smoke there they may choose to congregate and drink in a park or other open space instead. In these circumstances there is little opportunity or inclination to develop a sense of responsibility for an area that they have no real connection to. Those in cramped rented accommodation used to socialise in the local pub, where they drank from reusable glasses rather than disposable containers, networked with established residents and became part of the community, but you can’t smoke inside them any more and beer is available far more cheaply from off licences. Today’s open air drinkers may be sharing flats built on the site of the local pub.

Cans are only part of the litter problem in Greenford and there’s no doubt that home owners can be as slobbish as tenants who are passing through but it’s impossible to ignore the increase in that particular form of littering or the circumstances that lead to it. It’s also too easy to blame those who provide beer or fast food or other products with packaging that’s discarded by those who buy them on the way home (ever noticed the number of boxes for trainers that get dumped in the street?). Surely the takeaway boxes and cans I found scattered amongst the graves in the churchyard of Holy Cross say more about the people who left them there than those who sold them chicken and beer in the first place. Fast food outlets often provide bins, as does the council, and if the first one their customers come across is full why can’t they hold on to their rubbish until they find another one?

More bins that are emptied more frequently would mean higher council tax bills or further cuts to other services. It appears that Ealing Council may try to keep those bills to a minimum by removing some bins altogether or introducing others that can cope with larger quantities of rubbish but need emptying less often. An exchange of emails with Councillor Bassam Mahfouz, Cabinet member for Transport and Environment, about the disappearance of bins from the parade of shops near Greenford Station revealed that “As part of some recent ‘demand management’ testing, we trialled the removal of bins in certain locations. The trial has shown a 32% reduction in waste going to landfill via street cleansing, so a very positive outcome.” When I asked him where he thought the waste was going he said “It appears people end up throwing away their rubbish in black bags or recycling it rather than using the public bins as ways of saving from doing that.” If this is the case much of it may still be going into landfill, just not through street cleansing services. Enough of it went into the bin provided by the Tesco Express there to persuade the management to remove it, as they tried to cope with an unexpected increase in litter. He also told me “We are trialling a bin at the moment which could be the long term solution for sites like the one you refer to.” The “Big Belly” solar powered bin
can store eight times as much rubbish as a regular bin the same size because it incorporates a solar compactor.

Another option is to reintroduce a deposit system which, in some countries, has resulted in a considerable drop in littering. It would mean that manufacturers, having added 10p or so to the cost of each item, would refund that sum when the empty containers were returned by retailers who had added on 10p which they refund when customers bring back the empty containers. I feel it could work in an area like Greenford where a financial incentive might appeal to those who don’t care about the environment, it all depends on whether retailers can be bothered to take part. Would a need for more admin, more storage space and, possibly, a longer wait for their customers put them off? I was surprised to discover that one local retailer, the proprietor of Medway News in Medway Parade, thought it was a good idea, as long as it was at least a London wide scheme and preferably a national one. He felt that it would be worth the effort to prevent the build up of cans and bottles outside his shop and the general increase in levels of litter. He also felt that a financial incentive might attract those with no emotional attachment to the area and he pointed out that, at a time when we are all budgeting more carefully, long term residents might also be willing to do it. He also raised the issue of local shops charging for carrier bags to cut back on litter. In the case of Medway News we are dealing with a particularly community minded business, willing to network with its customer base via social media (@MedwayNews1, Facebook) but other off licences who are less engaged might not be so easily persuaded.

Perhaps a financial incentive would also encourage the Greenford home owner to hold on to the wrapper from his cigarette packet as he comes home in the evening. The huge cost of dealing with the existing litter problem, at a time when other council services are under pressure, needs to be better publicised. According to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee report on litter
“Because of the number of different bodies which collect litter and because the
collection of litter is often part of other activities such as street cleaning, it is difficult
to get a precise figure for litter collection costs. Nevertheless is it clear that the best
estimate costs—from £717 to £850 million—represent significant expenditure by local
authorities.”(12, p10) Of course if councillors who are keen to be re-elected continue to make savings through cuts rather than asking residents to pay for more refuse and recyling collections there will be no shared incentive to stop providing a need for them. Local politicians are hardly going to wag their fingers at voters and tell them that it’s all their fault.

I don’t feel that litter picking sessions, where community groups get together and clear areas voluntarily are always a good idea, although I recognise that litter attracts litter and I admire those who do this week after week because they really do care about their neighbourhoods. It shouldn’t be used as a punishment either. Street cleaning is legitimate employment for a great many respectable hardworking people. The simplest and most direct way to put someone off dropping litter is probably to point out the error of their ways to anyone you see doing it but we aren’t all that brave. Exasperated by the mess, I considered running after one man I saw place his empty beer can carefully on a flat surface under Greenford Flyover, because I know that there’s a bin not far from the subway exit. Then I thought “What am I risking over one can?” There was another occasion, however, when I just couldn’t stop myself from challenging unacceptable behaviour.

Greenford Road is quite busy at around 1pm on a weekday so when I saw a man standing close to a hedge with his back to the traffic and perceived what I took to be a jet of water I assumed he was watering it. He was, in a way. Keeping my distance and with my eyes firmly on his face I asked him if he couldn’t have waited until he got home but he just shrugged his shoulders (unwise given what he was doing). Unfortunately it is now common to see men urinating with their backs to the road, which is supposed to make them invisible. On this occasion a woman was walking past with a small child, as well as some pensioners, and I felt so sorry for them, that standards of behaviour had sunk to the point where thay had to see that. Today it seems that some men are as keen to dispose of the contents of their bladder as they are cigarette packets and beer cans. It isn’t that they can’t hold on until they get home, they just don’t see why they should or even attempt to relieve themselves discreetly.

I can only remember one occasion when I’ve associated this kind of behaviour with drunkeness. I was in Allendale Road on a weekday at around 11am talking to an elderly resident who had lived nearby for decades when she pointed out that two men who had been drinking on a bench across the road were now making space for some more by using a hedge as a urinal. She had been telling me what it had been like to move into a “posh” area as a newly married woman and I couldn’t think of a better example of the degree to which things had changed in Greenford than what was happening across the road at that moment. It’s highly likely that those concerned were a short walk from where they lived but, drunk or sober, couldn’t see the point of going home to do it. During a conversation with a local car dealer I learned that it was part of his routine for opening each day to hose down the area at the back of his premises. A group of young men who lived in flats immediately above the showroom were in the habit of congregating there to drink together in the evenings. They couldn’t be bothered to climb some stairs and open a front door to use their own toilet. In his case he wasn’t just hosing away urine and it wasn’t just an increase in rent that led to his moving elsewhere. It’s examples like these that undermine the notion that the provision of more public toilets would stop the practice.

There are a number of campaigns to increase public toilet provision and even maps to tell you where to find those that already exist but I don’t think they’ll solve the kind of problem that I’m describing. As someone who has suffered from a chronic bowel disorder for twenty years I applaud efforts by organisations such as Crohn’s and Colitis UK to get more built because I know just how poor toilet provision is for people like me. Unfortunately I think there are a number of obstacles to getting more of them in Greenford. How many residents would want a public toilet at the end of their street, especially if it attracts the kind of sexual or drug dealing activities that got others closed down in the past? Would a cash strapped council be prepared to hire attendants to supervise them during opening hours? I doubt whether many of those who are now urinating in public would be prepared to pay to use a toilet. I don’t think it’s the job of the police to deal with the problem, even where by-laws exist to make it an offence. In part I don’t think there should be a law against it because so many people do have medical conditions that mean they either relieve themselves where they can or soil themselves. Recently a man walking quite quickly ahead of me along Greenford Road disappeared twice from my view, behind a hedge and then a wall. Eventually I caught up with him under Greenford Flyover where he had nowhere to hide and was urinating. It seemed to me that he had an urgent need to do so and I suspect he had a prostate related problem. Someone in that situation shouldn’t get into trouble because he just can’t help it. Some charities that raise awareness of bowel and bladder conditions provide cards that sufferers can show to explain the problem which may help avoid situations involving the police and help them access toilets on premises that do not usually provide a public service.

Most of the offence caused by this activity could be avoided if those engaged in it made more of an effort to be discreet. There are so many alleyways, bushes and other options available that it makes me wonder if there isn’t an element of exhibitionism involved, in which case, how long will it be before they don’t even bother to turn their backs? I’ve wondered if young men simply don’t have the bladder capacity that their fathers did. What’s more likely is that there is now less of a sense of shame and fear of reproach, which is hardly surprising. One evening I had to walk past a man who was using a corner near our front door as a toilet. I would like to tell you that I got the garden hose out and gave him a soaking but the truth is I didn’t feel up to it. He was taller than me and I don’t think things would have turned out in my favour. If that’s how a middle aged woman feels when confronted with such a situation imagine what it must be like for an elderly person or a parent in the company of small children.

This is what the candidates for the constituency of Ealing North had to say about it:
Steve Pound (Labour, MP for Ealing North since 1997): “I have met with Insp Lemonde and the local police teams as recently as March 31st in connection with the problem of street drinking and I am also in regular contact with the developers of the former Glaxo site and Ferrero Rocher as well as GSM as I believe that an essential component of local regeneration is the ending of the offensive and disgusting practices you describe. I will continue to do this if re-elected.”

Kevin McNamara (Liberal Democrat): “There are hotspots for anti-social behaviour and I firmly believe there should be local solutions to them. I am not sure how much is possible within the context of local government spending being squeezed as well as policing numbers, but I think one way to do this would be to drive up the reporting rates of ASB and let intelligence-led policing lead to them patrolling the most challenged areas more with their scarcer resources.”

Meena Hans (Green): “In the 1970’s the government made and broadcast many public information films about littering which had a positive effect. I believe this should be done again as too many people casually drop items as they are walking along or throw things out of cars when driving without thinking of the consequences of their behaviour to the environment and the community. In regards to urinating in public, I have actually intended to write to Ealing councillors, to raise this issue and suggest that more public conveniences be built. Especially in parks, where people enjoy picnics and children play. However, so many parks and green areas have no public toilets and therefore encourage urination in public areas, mainly by men. Whereas the majority of people, including pregnant women, have no facilities that they can use. We also believe that anti-social behaviour is a by product of an unequal society. By increasing the minimum wage to a living wage of £10 per hour and working towards a society where people feel more valued should counter many forms of anti-social behaviour.”

David Hofman (TUSC): “A major factor in anti-social behaviour is the lack of decent social and welfare facilities, well-stocked libraries etc, which are either being closed, or never existed in the first place. However, as long as the Council continues to make cuts, this situation will only get worse.”

The UKIP candidate was too busy to respond. There was no response at all from the Conservative candidate.

In my opinion both of the problems I have raised in this post are caused by a lack of manners and selfishness, and can only be dealt with by shaming those responsible into better behaviour. It may require media campaigns and, for a brief and expensive period, zero tolerance by the police and council officers. It is clear that, while both these issues are far down the list of priorities for the authorities, they really irritate local residents when I mention them. Given the choice I think they would rather have me wheel a rattling shopping trolley past their homes every evening than be forced to look at what others are doing to the place they call home.

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2015 except for quotes. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.

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