Cleaning Up the Streets - A day with Edinburgh's environmental wardens

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Cleaning Up the Streets

Paul Dale spends a day with Edinburgh’s environmental wardens, and finds the job of the recycling police is a far cry from Miami Vice.

Like most spoilt Europeans I’m very conflicted about environmental issues. I recycle, compost and clean up my dog’s poo, volunteer for the once yearly litter pick-ups at my local park. In more reactionary moments I believe that summary execution is too good for perpetual litter droppers and dog foulers, but I also drive to supermarkets, occasionally smoke and fly when no other form of travel is suitable.

Ergo my carbon footprint is probably as black and unruly as Tony Blair’s conscience and yet I find myself pondering such modern paradoxes as, ‘Why am I the only person on my street who puts out their recycling box on the correct day? They can’t all need the boxes for their children’s Lego collection?’ And, ‘Why do people put metal and dead animals in the street-side plastic recycling containers?’

With the failure of last year’s Copenhagen climate-change talks came great responsibility for the individual. As one of the signatories to the 10/10 campaign to reduce carbon emissions that emerged from the disappointments of Copenhagen, the City of Edinburgh Council is obviously an organisation that takes environmental concerns seriously. The people who are charged with spearheading this action are the environmental wardens. It is their job to police the traffic of waste to make sure it is going in the right direction and to the right place. They have the power to hand out fines for all manner of misdemeanours. In the name of tolerance and understanding I was allowed to spend one morning shadowing these guards of the garbage.

It’s 9am on a Tuesday morning. I meet wardens Paul and Darren in the council offices at the bottom of Cockburn Street. They seem amiable but formal, kitted out in bulky fluorescent yellow body warmers. Paul is ex-military and does most of the talking; Darren is quieter but professional and polite. Paul likes to talk in dizzying acronyms and constantly recites the legislation he is working under like a civic memory man. Their beat is Canongate at the bottom of the Royal Mile. Their first stop is to issue a ticket to a domestic resident for continually putting their bin out too early, an offence under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. They ask me to wait at the bottom of the stairwell while they go and talk to the resident in the unlikely event that there are any problems.

But I wonder how did they know it was this one resident in a whole tenement of people who has committed this infraction? ‘We search the bins for identification, opened letters that kind of thing,’ Paul explains. I’ve suddenly got images in my head of Benjamin Pell, aka the Fleet Street Sewer Rat, the mentally unstable loner who used to rake through the bins of the rich and famous and sell stories on to the red tops. I don’t tell them that, I’m too busy calculating if I can afford a shredder.

We move on. Paul and Darren explain that a lot of what they do is checking that trade waste is not dumped in domestic bins. Paul says that fines can go up to £400,000 for such misdemeanours before adding: ‘But we’re talking about dumping plutonium in a rabbit sanctuary for that kind of fine.’ I laugh.

We look in a lot of bins; the lads have keys for all of them. Street bins are checked for trade waste, recycling bins are checked to see if the right materials are being put in them. It’s CSI meets The Life of Grime. I’m getting heady with the aroma of bin juice.

For a bit of greenery we hit the Canongate Kirk cemetery. They show me the shooting galleries at the back of the graveyard where drug addicts discard their needles. They call this in to a task force who will come and clear it up as they do for some leaky discarded bins and some graffiti in an alleyway opposite.

Then to finish our tour of duty it’s dog poo and fags. ‘Brilliant,’ I think, ‘maybe now I’ll see some tickets being handed out to the literati’, but instead they show me a church front lawn area which has been scourged of its dog filth problem. Paul shows us the council’s new initiative on fag and gum litter. It’s called a Minibin(tm) pouch and it is fluorescent green (check it out at www.smartstreets.co.uk). I can’t really see it taking off but I admire the pioneering optimism of the scheme. Paul takes us through the many compartments of his utility belt – mobile, maps, torch – and then we are done. An afternoon of paperwork and meetings lie ahead with Darren and Paul. For me I’m going to see how long I can use my new Minibin(tm) on Leith Walk before I get filled in.

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