There’s been a spike of interest in litter picking since the pandemic began last year, and some new Manchester groups have been set up. MM joined one of them, Clean & Green Castlefield, to find out more.
Litter picking is calm, almost meditative work, and – as I soon realise – it’s all about compromise.
Even equipped with a claw and a bin bag, there’s only so much you can ever do: you’ll never get every single cigarette butt, every bottle top, every random little bit of plastic.
And then there’s all the stuff you can’t even begin to tackle: you can’t scrape up gum, or weed the pavement, or get rid of graffiti. You should even steer clear of broken glass, I’m instructed. An injured litter picker is no use to anyone.
But if you get enough people involved, the effect can be transformative.
On Saturday morning, members of Clean and Green Castlefield stepped up to play their part in the Great British Spring Clean – a national campaign running from 28 May until 13 June.
I lent a hand, and learned a few things about why people choose to get involved with litter picking.
“Because of the pandemic, I didn’t have much to do,” says Gary Rumens, 35, the founder of the group. “I still wanted to get out and about – but when I was out walking, I noticed there was more and more litter around.”
Gary first got involved with an established litter picking group in Salford, and enjoyed both the activity and the social aspect – a socially distanced litter pick was one of few permissible ways to meet new people last year. So when he realised there was no group local to him in Manchester’s central Castlefield area, he took matters into his own hands.
His group now has more than 400 members on Facebook, and around 30 people turned up for the Great British Spring Clean event – the highest turnout yet. They collected 70 bags’ worth of litter in May, and as many as 114 in April.
Today, they even have Christian, 36, on a paddleboard, sorting out the canal.
“It’s only recently they’ve allowed paddleboarding on the Bridgewater Canal,” he says.
“I live round here, I run down by the canal all the time, I know it’s got a lot of litter in it. It’s good to be able to actually get it out.”
Everyone, it turns out, has their own reasons for getting involved. Kirk, 33, surprises me with his forensic fascination for what he finds.
“To be honest, I’m most curious as to what kind of rubbish people drop,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of cigarette butts and plastic bottles.”
For Kevin, 35, it’s a way of assuaging the guilt he feels ignoring so much litter the rest of the time. “This way, when you’re walking around during the week, you see stuff lying around and you think: ‘It’s all right, I’ll come back and get to you on the weekend.’”
Kevin used to live in Sweden, where things are rather different – “They will make you envious of keeping a city clean,” he tells me. “It’s a bit of the culture, but they also have city workers to make sure everything’s picked up, and recycling programmes – they incentivise people to recycle and get paid for it.”
For several volunteers, including Robyn, 24, litter picking is about taking responsibility for their local area – especially since the pandemic started and people started dropping masks all over the streets.
“People complain the area’s not that nice,” she says, “but if you clean up the trash, it makes a big difference.
“Sometimes people [only] think about big things, but you also have to do the little things in your own area.”
Explore the map below to meet some more litter pickers.
Later, I chance upon Marcus Johns, a Labour councillor for the local Deansgate ward, doggedly dislodging cigarette butts from the wall of a canalside building. He explains to me how the council has helped Gary out, and how the volunteers, the council, waste collectors Biffa, and the local group Castlefield Forum all collaborate to make it happen.
Why do we need volunteer litter picking groups at all, I ask?
“We’ve had over a decade of austerity, of making cuts to budgets, and that has an effect that we all see,” he points out.
“There’s always more to be done, and I think it’s likely to be that way for a long time, unfortunately.
“But this is a good thing – people looking after where they live, and taking an interest, and caring.
“If we had more of that, and more people were involved, I think fewer people would drop litter anyway.”
I head off to find some more litter pickers to speak to, but stop guiltily along the way to claw at a few of the cans and bottles I’m hurrying past. A passerby sees me and stops.
“Excuse me,” she says. “I just wanted to say: thank you. Thank you so much for doing this and helping the community.
“You’re a beautiful person.”
I wasn’t expecting that. I’m touched, even a little emotional. But I hold it together.
“There’s a local group,” I reply. “You should get involved!”
She pretends not to hear me and walks on.