Squashing the litter bugs

From desk chairs to plastic bottles. Discover what is polluting our parks and meets the people keeping them clean

Amelia Neath on a quest to discover what types of litter are being left in ELL parks. Pic: Isabel Jackson

Parks can be the heartbeat of any community; for London in particular, they are a vital source of the natural environment and wildlife away from the urban landscape. However, the health of our parks in the Eastlondonlines boroughs is under threat due to the ever-increasing rise of littering and fly-tipping.

The unprecedented use of our green spaces during the pandemic resulted in an increase in the volume of litter in parks. A 2022 report by Parks for London explained how lockdowns came to be a double-edged sword; with more people relying on green spaces for their wellbeing, but with that came an increase of litter being left in parks and along canals.

Since the pandemic, Parks for London estimates that it costs London councils £14.8m a year in taxpayer money to clear litter in parks.  That amount of money could be spent elsewhere, from providing park toilet facilities to picnic benches or children’s playground equipment.

What litter is being left in your local park?

We spent time in each park picking litter to see exactly what rubbish was being left behind. From muslin cloths to cannabis pouches, dog poo to condom wrappers, there was an array of pieces of litter being left behind in parks in the Eastlondonlines’ boroughs. The worst park in terms of littering was Haggerston Park in Hackney, which had an astonishing amount of plastic waste caught up in the brambles and woodland areas, most of which was food packaging.

The largest category across all four boroughs was plastic, with food packaging wrappers the most common pieces of litter. These wrappers are mostly made up of a material called polypropylene, a plastic that can take around 20 to 30 years to decompose. The second most common was plastic drinking bottles, which are mostly made up of a material called polyethylene terephthalate, which can take up to 500-700 years to fully break down.

How can you help?

Litter picking with Plastic Free Hackney. Pic: Amelia Neath

It may seem like an impossible task to clear the parks of litter, picking up litter, whether that’s your own or through volunteering to pick up others’, just removing some of the litter can help prevent pollution from plastics entering the soil, water and the air in your local green area, as well as preventing wild animals from choking on rubbish or getting diseases.

Dian Sophia and Steph Steele, volunteers at Plastic Free Hackney, a grassroots environmentalist group, run a monthly “pollution pick” event around Hackney Marshes and Lea Valley Park.

Sophia explained the significance of getting together as a community to look after green spaces, rather than just relying on local councils to clear the parks. She said: “When you pick up litter you can be quite horrified, a lot of first-timers always comment that they don’t realise how bad it is. They find that if you look under the bushes, or after a windy day, you find it everywhere.”

Litter-picking is also about educating others on environmental issues and allowing people to discover a greater appreciation for their parks. “It’s a good community engagement event, we do this once a month. We know that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make a huge impact on litter [as a wider issue], but it’s a good way to engage with younger people, as well as people who also spend time in these green spaces, who will see it in a different light,” she says.

A downpour of torrential rain warned off many volunteers the morning I joined the litter-picking session along the River Lea’s path. I found bushes littered with cans, food wrappers and miscellaneous plastic objects. What set this litter pick apart from those in other parks, though, was the Marshes’ fly-tipping problem. Under the bushes lay desk chairs, children’s scooters and various items of clothing. One of the other volunteers commented how this shows how much of an issue waste is: that people will put in the effort to come to a green space and dump their belongings rather than go to the local tip just up the road.

After an hour, my bin bag was weighed down with the litter I’d collected.

While you may want to blame the council for not doing a better job, the people who leave their rubbish in the park, or even the companies who make unsustainable packaging, often the answer lies with the people who want to make a difference – volunteers. Lewisham was noted as the borough with the best strategic park planning by the 2022 Parks for London report and the borough claims to have been protecting its green spaces through volunteering schemes. For example, Lewisham’s conservation events delivered 119,000 volunteering hours with an estimated value of £1.2m worth of work done. Imagine how much litter was collected and properly disposed of in that time.

So next time you spot some litter while visiting an Eastlondonlines park, why not pick it up and pop it into a nearby bin? Or you could organise a litter pick with friends and family. Make sure you take a picture and tweet us at #ELLparkcleanup to show us your contribution to keeping our parks tidy.

For the rest of our series on green spaces, click here.

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