At first glance, Mile End Park in Tower Hamlets is idyllic. Families play on the grass and cyclists come and go along the paths running across the park. The site is dotted with bins and appears tidy.
However, look a little closer and visitors will find a lot of litter piling behind plants and in flower beds.
Iain Marshall, 30, started his one-man mission to clean up the park in his his spare time in May 2020.
‘During the first Covid-19 lockdown, I started going for daily walks throughout Mile End Park, exploring every path and corner. One thing that struck me was the large volumes of litter everywhere which took away from the beautiful surroundings,’ he said.
Mile End Park covers 32 hectares of east London with lush greenery and is home to many creatures, including over 400 species of beetle.
After two weeks of picking up rubbish during his daily walks, Marshall set up social media accounts, Clean Mile End Park, to raise awareness among local residents of the litter that is thrown away daily.
Most of the rubbish is what you would expect – bags of snacks and empty cans – but some is less ordinary.
‘Some that stand out include part of a car bumper, a washing up rack, an iron, a bedroom mirror, swimming goggles, and a toaster. However, my most memorable would be a crisp packet which was 29 years old, and I’ve only just turned 30 myself.’
Since the beginning of this year, Iain has kept track of the amount of time he has spent collecting litter – as well as how much rubbish he has picked up in the park.
‘From the start of 2021 up until the end of September, I’ve filled 136 bin bags during 123 hours, 31 minutes litter picking in the park.’
Since the coronavirus lockdowns last year, the issue of littering in London’s parks has received frequent attention in the media.
Iain appreciates the importance of organised clean-ups, such as Plastic-Free Hackney and Friends of Mile End Park, in which he occasionally participates.
However, he also has questions about the operation of fines for littering, which are in place in London, but do not appear to be enforced frequently.
Iain sent a Freedom of Information request to the local police to get the figures – it showed that between January 2017 and September 2020, Tower Hamlets Police issued just four fixed penalty notices for littering.
‘For a start, I would like local authorities and police to actually enforce the current law which may start to deter people from littering as they would feel there is an actual chance that they would be fined.’
Tower Hamlets Police did not respond to request for comment.
There is still no perfect solution to the problem of waste in the parks – and Clean Mile End Park is still posting today, unfortunately.
Iain said it could be disheartening to find litter again the next week, in an area he cleaned the week before. But even so, he continued: ‘Receiving positive responses in person from fellow park users or from those that follow my social media accounts always gives you that boost and reminds you that people do appreciate what I’m doing in trying to keep the park tidy.’
‘I know of at least two local individuals who I have engaged with either online or in person in the park who have been inspired to start litter picking as well. This is an outcome that I never expected from when I started the account.’
Reporter: Yuta Sato