During lockdown, the skies were clear of airplane trails, the roads empty of cars, and the parks free from litter. Now, since we’ve been able to return to relatively normal life, the amount of litter left on streets and in parks seems to be higher than ever before.
In response, Keep Britain Tidy have rescheduled their big clean-up to this month. As part of the Great British September Clean, people are encouraged to go out in groups of up to 6 to pick up litter and improve their public spaces.
Over 680,000 people across Great Britain have promised their time between September 11th and 27th.
In Surrey, Send Parish Council, Lingfield Parish Council, Generation Gymnastics Old Dean, various Scouting groups, and many others, have arranged their own litter picks as part of the Great British September Clean.
But litter doesn’t go away after September.
Go Surrey spoke to Michael (Mick) Tumilty, the founder of Walton Litter Pickers, a group which runs litter picks year-round, about how a community has formed around this task and how litter picking is an easy way to improve your local area.
The Walton Litter Pickers began in May 2018 when Mick retired after working in respiratory medicine for 25 years. That September, as he took the kids to school, he was shocked by the amount of litter on the roads in Walton-on-Thames. His kids eventually told him to “shut up and do something about it” and he did.
He bought a litter picker and started cleaning up the streets. Soon his kids and their friends wanted a go, so he bought a few more.
“When you have children saying, ‘Father Christmas bring me one of these’ you know you’re onto a good thing,” says Mick.
In March 2019 Mick started a Facebook group and Twitter page for the Walton Litter Pickers and his wife came up with the hashtag #CommitToYourStreet where people can commit to the more manageable task of only picking up litter on their street.
Today, the Walton Litter Pickers have 214 members, some of which are actually overseas in Australia, the USA, and Germany. Around 50 members are active, picking litter most weeks.
How it usually works is people pick independently, with their family or with friends, and once a month there is a group pick where up to 40 litter pickers come together.
It is only recently that the Walton Litter Pickers came back again after lockdown, with advice to only go out in household groups or individually.
Mick has noticed littering is worse than it was before lockdown. “Every day I pass the same places and I am filling 1, 2 or 3 bags of litter from the same spots,” he says.
The typical items of litter are bottles and cans of alcohol; nitrous oxide canisters and balloons; fast food packaging; wet wipes, masks and gloves.
The litter picks aren’t just about cleaning up the local area. Mick is enthusiastic about the social impact too.
“We have people who are now going outside and getting exercise every day and actively picking up litter. They are improving the aesthetics of the town and they have made friends from the group picks or the social media,” says Mick.
Thanks to the success of his group, Mick has become an ambassador for Keep Britain Tidy. This role couldn’t be more fitting, as Mick notices, “If I stop, it sort of all stops. If I am seen to be doing stuff, it motivates others to continue.”
The Walton Litter Pickers often let other groups borrow their equipment, some of which was gifted to the group or funded by a local award. Just in the month of September, the Walton 9th Cub Group, Elmbridge Extinction Rebellion, and Walton Sea Scouts all borrowed the equipment for a day or two.
Mick also works closely with schools like Grovelands Primary and Ashley C of E Primary to arrange litter picks.
“These groups want to be part of the Great British Clean and to be seen as positive influences on the youngsters,” explains Mick.
Just last week, Mick was contacted by Surrey Choices, an organisation which supports people living with disabilities, about some of their members wanting to give back to their community by engaging in litter picking.
When lending the equipment out, everything is disinfected before and afterwards. “Health and safety is our number one priority,” Mick ensures us.
Mick also recommends everyone carries hand sanitizer and washes their hands before and after using the equipment.
The message Mick wants to convey is simply – people should stop littering.
“We shouldn’t feel the compulsion to pick up other peoples’ rubbish and be glorified bin men. Nobody wants to do this. I would much rather spend my time coaching a football team or taking an art class,” says Mick.
“When we do this, we are trying to set an example to the community. Take social responsibility. We will clean up after you, but ideally the message is we want you to do this in the first place. There are plenty of bins. Use them. And if you can’t find a bin, or the bin is overflowing, take your own rubbish home.
“We do it because we don’t want our children growing up in an environment where this is normal. It wasn’t for me when I was young. And it shouldn’t be for the next generation.”
Mick says he could talk for hours about all that needs to be done to solve the litter problem. He advocates both for kids to be educated that littering is socially and environmentally unacceptable and for the government and councils to implement fines for littering, develop infrastructure so bins are emptied more frequently, and share public health messages to tackle the problem head-on.
More information on the Great British September Clean can be found here.
All photos are credited to Mick Tumilty and Walton Litter Pickers.