A morning with volunteer litter pickers – and some odd finds

LDR Emily Coady-Stemp L-R Lindsey von Backstrom, Neal Webb and Juliet Quartermain, from Tadworth, Kingswood, Lower Kingswood, Walton & Burgh Heath Litter Pickers

Emily Coady-Stemp, Local Democracy Reporter, recently spent time with volunteer litter pickers working an area just to the north of the M25 junction.

By Emily Coady-Stemp, Local Democracy Reporter, 12 Jan 2021

“That’s blood.” “Is it?”

“Look, it’s much thicker in there.”

We approach the bin bag by the side of a countryside lane cautiously and there is indeed a red liquid dripping out. No other obvious signs of loss of life, until someone uncovers a partially-completed tag from the British Deer Society, and a ‘date killed’ listing December 23, 2021.

Still there’s nothing more ominous to put into the litter collecting sack than the black bin bag and the tag, and we move on to look for more.

In the course of my morning collecting litter with the Tadworth, Kingswood, Lower Kingswood, Walton & Burgh Heath Litter Pickers, we find three bottles of urine, a handbag full of make-up and £1.50, as well as the bloodied bin bag.

I’m out with Neal Webb, Lindsey von Backstrom and Juliet Quatermain, who describe themselves as a “core” of around thirty pickers with hundreds more following on social media.

The group has been nominated by Reigate & Banstead Borough Council for a #LitterHeroes prize at next month’s national Keep Britain Tidy awards.

They work with Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, which provides the purple bin bags the group leaves at various points along the route to be picked up by council rubbish collectors.

The borough council spends around £1million each year on street cleaning services, including the clearing of litter and fly-tipping and is keen to recognise the “amazing achievement” and “continued commitment” of the ever-growing group of volunteers.

‘Seven litter sacks filled within an hour and a half’

I walk a loop with the litter pickers that takes in Babylon Lane and Blackhorse Lane, up to Junction 8 of the M25 and back along a stretch of the A217 towards Lower Kingswood.

Despite the stretch being a regular route for the litter pickers, and having been picked in the last fortnight, we fill seven sacks of litter in an hour and a half.

Lindsey says: “I love this loop that we’re doing now. It’s quite social, and you can chat.”

She sees the activity as part of her social life, and a welcome break from her work at a hospital.

She also tells me, when we find a disposable face mask in the bushes, that they see a lot of them when out picking.

Lindsey explains that people aren’t always littering knowingly and that when people get out of cars it’s very easy to go into your pocket to get something out and your mask, or similar, to fall out.

There’s a serious feeling of goodwill among the pickers, Neal acknowledges that they are “all very different” and he’s found himself hanging out with people he never thought he would be friends with.

‘We’re going to write a book about litter picking one day, the chapters are hilarious’

There’s also a lot of terminology that I pick up along the way: the group has a “bunny ear” technique for tying bags, we keep one final “active bag” going for the last stretch of the pick, and Neal is teased at one point for having a “pitiful bag”.

Lindsey, who works in the NHS, also shows me her “reverse technique”, where she backs into the bushes to avoid the branches and thorns getting her face.

She tells me: “Neal and I always laugh, we say we’re going to write a book about litter picking.

“The chapters we come up with are hilarious.”

The group has in the past found several sex toys, knives and Lindsey tells me she also once did find a deer skeleton. In the past, found pairs of glasses have been sent to a charity in Kenya.

Juliet posts a lot of the group’s social media content, and has started up a TikTok for the litter pickers.

She’s regularly stopping the pickers on the walk to get footage, picking out the best finds for her posts and getting videos of the group in action.

She says: “Neal is really helpful because he doesn’t mind letting me make a bit of fun.”

‘Our ultimate aim is to not have to come out to do it anymore’

Neal says the group see themselves as conservationists, trying to redress the balance in nature where people are dropping litter.

He says: “People are always going to drop litter, and we can’t educate people not to.”

Nonetheless, the group does tell me that the route we pick used to be much worse, with them finding car parts, hub caps and more.

Neal hopes the group is setting a good example and says they are often stopped by people asking to get involved when they are out picking.

“Our ultimate aim,” he says, “is to not have to come out and do it any more.”

The British Deer Society says it is not responsible for deer culls itself but aims to encourage best practice by providing tags such as the one we found, which a spokesperson notes has not been fully completed with a stalker’s name and trained hunter number, and has likely been discarded without being used.

A British Deer Society spokesperson said: “The British Deer Society does not itself cull deer, but recognises the need for their management where numbers exceed the carrying capacity of the local environment.

“To ensure that culling is carried out humanely and in line with accepted best practice we provide training and supply items such as the tag in the picture.

“All deer that that enter the food chain as venison must, by law, be inspected by a trained person and tagged accordingly.”

Frank Etheridge, strategic head of neighbourhood services at Reigate & Banstead Borough Council, said a dramatic rise in fly-tipping since the start of the pandemic led to the launch of the borough council’s ‘No Rubbish Excuses’ campaign last year.

The campaign uses targeted messaging in locations with high numbers of littering incidents and over social media.

He said that alongside the campaign, during April to November last year, analysis of CCTV footage and other enforcement methods led to 41 £400 Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) being issued for fly-tipping and 31 £80 FPNs being issued for littering.

He added: “Working with volunteer groups allows us to enhance our standards of cleanliness to make Reigate & Banstead a pleasant place to live, work and visit. We thank all volunteers for everything they do to keep our borough tidy and will continue to supply them with equipment and coordinate our collection teams to remove the waste they gather.”

On the very last stretch of our pick, I’m delighted to find my own bottle of urine. The group is pleased for me – Neal says: “Well done. That’s your own find that.”

Something to be proud of.

About the Local Democracy Reporting Service
This article is by a journalist at the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).

The LDRS is part of the Local News Partnerships, a scheme set up by the BBC and the News Media Association, where the BBC funds journalists to report on local councils and local public bodies.

Reigate.uk is one of more than 1,000 news outlets that have signed up to use the scheme.

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