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Rats and rubbish bags
Image: Time Out

Is it just us or… is London covered in rubbish?

We look into the capital’s current bin-collection, fly-tipping and littering issues

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

‘This rat just hurled out of the bin bag and jumped really high,’ says Oliver from the Rats out of SE5 Instagram account. ‘It looked massive, so at first I was like, “Oh my God has someone thrown a kitten in a bag?” But then I realised it was a rat. I was disgusted.’

Oliver, who preferred to remain anonymous because of his job, has lived next to Camberwell Green for the past three years. Over the summer, he noticed an insurgence of vermin running riot in the area. ‘It's suddenly got crazy,’ he says. ‘I’ll walk across the green and notice about 16 rats. People aren’t hanging out there much anymore. It feels like it’s been surrendered to the rats.’

Oliver can hear the emboldened pests from his flat at night, as if taunting him away from restful sleep. On top of giant flying ones, he’s also seen ‘20 rats all on top of each other eating a piece of mouldy bread’. Some locals have incredibly even taken to feeding them. ‘There is a lot more litter and I feel like it’s had a ripple effect,’ he says.

The rats seem to be down to one problem: overflowing piles of garbage.

A rising tide of rubbish

It’s a London rite of passage to go through bin-related trauma. Whether it's being loudly woken in the mornings by banging refuse collections, having foxes tear apart your bags leaving festering trash outside your window for days on end, or fly-tipping the decrepit IKEA furniture your landlord just won’t get rid of, no one is spared from the Kafkaesque nightmare that is trying to figure out where to put your rubbish in a city that inexplicably has almost no bins. And with 40C summers set to become the norm, we’ve got one more reason to be concerned about fetid mounds of baking litter taking over the streets.

Cathy Swift is the leader of rubbish-picking group Litter Action Group for Ealing Residents, also known as LAGER Can. According to Swift, London’s bin problem stems from an amalgamation of issues: we’ve got too many people, councils don’t have enough money and we’re consuming much more than we used to, including lots of out-of-home eating and drinking (we’ve all got piles of old Waga’s packaging at home thanks to all those ever-so-tempting hungover katsu curries). On top of that, houses that were once large family homes are now converted into multiple flats, and landlords (don’t you just love ’em?) don’t always provide residents with appropriate bins, or even information about what to do with their rubbish. 

‘There just aren’t enough bins and the bins we do have aren’t emptied often enough,’ says Swift. ‘And I think it’s getting worse.’ 

According to stats from DEFRA, in 2020/21 there were on average 20 fly-tipping incidents per 1,000 people in England. London had almost double that, with 43 per 1,000 people. For the year ending March 2021, there were 384,834 recorded instances of fly-tipping in the city, amounting to a whopping 44 dumpings every hour. 

There just aren’t enough bins and the bins we do have aren’t emptied often enough

Fly-tipping isn’t just discarding a manky old mattress on the street. It actually means leaving any kind of rubbish anywhere that’s not a dustbin. It’s a serious criminal offence that can land you with a fine of up to £50,000. And Londoners will fly-tip anything. In her five years as a litter-picker, Swift has collected cuddly toys, guns, knives and even a canoe. 

Bins and rubbish in Camden
Photograph: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, as London’s great heaps of trash swell, bin collectors are going on strike. And to stop people dumping crap on the streets, councils have cooked up all kinds of outlandish solutions. In Hackney, to encourage recycling, they changed bin collections from once a week to every two weeks. It hasn’t worked. ‘People literally haven’t got room in their home to store two weeks of rubbish at a time,’ says Swift. 

In other boroughs, including Ealing, the council has actually trialled taking some of the bins away to stop fly-tipping. Of course, this experiment was a load of, ahem, rubbish, as fewer bins meant people simply chucked their litter on the ground instead, when the scheme it was supposed to encourage them to take it home.

Bin wars 

For Marcus, 25, who’d rather not have his full name out there for his bin-related crimes, his refuse issues ran him into trouble with the law. He recently got a £95 fine for fly-tipping after his new landlord neglected to tell him what to do with his trash. 

‘I moved into this flat and they didn’t tell me where my bins went so I put them on the street, like at my old place in Westminster,’ he says. ‘These people knocked on my door and it was really scary because they looked like police and I didn’t know what had gone wrong.

‘I spent an hour walking around trying to figure out where to put my rubbish because there aren’t any big bins near me.’ After a few minutes of pleading, he was eventually let off with the £95 penalty, but he was still waiting to hear from his landlord to find out what exactly to do with his bins.

‘For the last three weeks, I’ve been secretly scurrying around at night with my rubbish and putting it in other people’s bins. I’m burning my labels off so if they go through the bins again they can’t trace it back to me,’ he admits.  

Lydia (who also prefers not to have her full name out there) ran into bin issues when she moved to a new house in Haringey. ‘We’re in a “new” property without any space for a wheelie bin [she lives in a converted garage], while the rest of the houses on my road have wheelie bins, so they just kept ignoring our rubbish,’ she says. ‘The foxes would get to it and I’d have to go out retrieving all the rubbish they’d strewn across the street.’

After two months of bin woes, Lydia eventually lodged a formal complaint and her issues cleared up. But some Londoners haven’t been so lucky, with others telling Time Out they had to beg the council for recycling bins for their building of 40 flats which had none, and one who nearly took their local authority to court because of piles of rubbish and rat infestations in the area. 

The future of London’s binfrastructure

So, what’s the solution? Organisations like LAGER Can are already collecting between 2,000 and 5,000 bags of rubbish a month, while councils are understaffed and underfunded. Swift suggests initiatives like bottle deposit return schemes could be successful and would put the onus on the corporations that make the packaging instead of individuals and councils. Supposedly the government is looking into it, but we have no idea if or when it could actually happen. 

‘In the short term there has to be more adequate binfrastructure,’ says Swift. ‘More bins that are emptied more frequently.’ In the meantime, Londoners would all do well to channel the spirit of LAGER Can and Swift, who says: ‘We all hate rubbish, we all love the environment, we all care enough to actually do something about it.’

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