Hi Helen, could you introduce yourself?
Hi, I am Helen Charlton, and I am one of the founders and admins for Pick Deal Clean. We operate mainly on our Facebook group and through Next Door Deal.
Tell me more about Pick Deal Clean, how did it start?
I will try and cut a long story short, it is amazing how it has developed! During the first lockdown, I was getting up before sunrise and cycling before 7am. I cycled along this lovely route out of Deal called The Ancient Highway, taking beautiful photographs. Being a bit of a hawk eye, I started to look beyond the beauty and noticed that there were a few bits of litter there, looking closer I noticed it wasn’t a few bits- but a lot!
From then on, I started to casually litter pick. Time went on and I started to pick more and more and more- that is when I thought I can’t just do this as a little hobby, and I felt like I had to go public on it. So, I started photographing what I was picking and sending it, to basically anyone’s email address I had- Local councillors, town councillors, the mayor!
It was picked up by the mayor and by Dover District Council. They were instrumental in pushing us along in a certain direction. I realised there were other likeminded people and we needed to create a medium- it snowballed from there! We had a lot of people join initially as it was something new in the town of Deal, as it is environmental and community spirited. We grew from an initial 300 to now 600 members. But truth be told, I estimate about 7-10% of that number are litter picking. There is a percentage of people that are regularly engaging with the group and supporting us. But that step from acknowledging what is going on and actually being part of it voluntarily is quite a big step for people to take.
As a result of Covid-19, do you feel like there has been a shift in the amount of litter found?
It is interesting that you should ask me that- Yes and No. I think that Covid meant and is still meaning that people don’t want to pick up. The fear of contamination- because let’s face it, you can’t litter pick unless you have a pair of gloves and a picker, unless you are hardcore like me! I think as a result of that, there were some people that might have picked up litter but no- hang on, germs, contamination and COVID.
Another reason why there is more, more people were/are eating outside, more people are getting takeaway food. And as we know, one of the significant components of litter is take out packaging from food outlets and our culture has shifted to an eating outside culture. So yes, I believe there has been an increase in litter because of COVID-19.
What is the most common form of litter you find?
Cigarette butts! A lot of people don’t regard them as litter, and it is the unseen litter. They are so small and so common place that people don’t notice them. Last September, as a group we did a blitz on them. We then did an awareness raising piece on how many we were picking up. From September to December, in a limited number of streets, we picked up 18,000 cig butts!
Check out our cigarette butt solution here
Wow, is there particular hot spots for that type of litter?
Yes, outside bars, outside restaurants, outside pubs, outside vets, outside theatres, anywhere that a public establishment is not providing facilities for their clientele to ‘stub out’ in an environmentally friendly way. And I think a lot of smokers don’t actually think they are doing wrong. They think by flicking it into the gutter, they are doing the right thing. It is a case of, without sounding patronising, educating people that the microplastics in those butts are ultimately going to end up in our water systems and inside us.
How does your litter collection log work?
The litter collection log started quite soon. One of our admins is from an IT background- Thank goodness! And he said very quickly, we need to start logging stuff. So he created a simple and quick format. We log where we have picked, what litter we have picked, how long we picked for and how many bags. This enables us to keep a tally of the amount of volunteer hours we are putting in and the number of litter picking events. The figure I gave earlier of 7-10% of people are picking, comes from what is recorded on this form. There will be people that are picking but not recording and as it is voluntary, we can’t twist people’s arms to do that. It is a useful snapshot of what we are doing because it enables us to give stats to the council and the public.
What have you noticed from that data?
From April 2021 to December 2021, our volunteer hours were over 2000 and we had collected 12,000 bags of litter. We were shocked by these figures. We wrote a press release, and it was hard to get the wording as it isn’t really something to be proud of.
What is your relationship like with your council?
Good, very good! It is something that we have worked on. I believe that we struck lucky from the outset. I was sending photographs of litter to the leader of the Dover District Council, and he sent them on to his Environmental Crime Lead Andrzej Kluczynski and he phoned me up (I was litter picking at the time!) He said that he has received the photograph and thanked me for what I was doing. This was before Pick Deal Clean started. He has been beside us ever since and even made the application for Keep Britain Tidy Litter Heroes award which we were runners up in. They appreciate what we are doing and are as supportive as they can be. Like many councils in the UK, if It weren’t for voluntary litter picking groups, they wouldn’t be coping with the waste and litter that is going on.
Do you believe that litter picking can have a positive impact on people’s mental health?
Yes, that is something that I recognised early on. I talk to a lot of the members of the group and several of them (all women) say that is has really helped them. They can go at their own pace; it is as slow as they want it to be. The picking up of litter is almost meditative, you are meeting people and getting gratitude. Also, you are out in the fresh air and when you have finished your litter pick, there is a sense that you have done something good for your community- what is not to like about it!
Do you have litterpicking hotspots?
Yes, I believe that has been the success of Pick Deal Clean. Even though we are a group, and we communicate via our social media- we are a group of individuals. We have a map of the town with highlighted areas of where people are litter picking. Another great thing about it is, that you can do it close to home. People will choose an area that they care about and pick there, e.g., the seafront. The seafront is a high priority area which is picked by a council operative so there isn’t as much litter there. We pick our own ‘patches’ and then we will also do ‘pop-up picks’ through social media shout outs after problem areas are identified.
Have you seen an impact in the community since your group began? Yes, we get comments from the public saying that it has made such a difference, that the town is cleaner and because we are a small town so almost everyone knows of our group and what we are doing. And there is the shock factor as people think they are living in a nice small town. I don’t think there are any nice clean towns in Britain- you give me the town; I will find the litter! It will be tucked in a corner, blown into a car park but it will be there.
What are the future plans for Pick Deal Clean?
That is an interesting question. I wanted the title of the group because that is the aim. It is a small town- we can make it clean; litter pick it clean!
I would like to see more people in the community taking the step of picking up litter- instead of walking round or past the litter. You don’t have to be part of a group- accept that your environment doesn’t end at your front wall. Your environment is your pavement, your street, the area around you. The environment belongs to all of us. It doesn’t belong to the council; it doesn’t belong to Pick Deal Clean. It belongs to all of us!
Tell me more about your litter poetry!
I started doing artwork from litter but there is a lot of litter artwork out there, so I was looking for a USP. I started putting words with pieces of litter I picked up and I have been a language teacher to overseas students and taught pronunciation. I love rhythm and stress of language and I love intonation. Quite often, I will pick up a piece of litter and a sentence will come into my head with a rhythm and before you know it, I will have the bones of a poem whilst I am still picking.
At first, they were very jokey and then they changed as I became more climate conscious. The poems became more edgy over time. The piece of litter could be tiny, but I think about the bigger picture of that item which when you think about effects everything.
I read a piece yesterday which said that when you go to buy a piece of clothing- you should think about whether you want that piece of clothing forever.
That is exactly what we are doing during Great British Spring Clean with events focused on Fabric Waste. We are making clothing items from fabric waste we have found from litter picking- glove skirt (or glirt!), a costume made from face masks and a clothes rail with items that have been found on litter picks and then washed and pressed with labels saying BUY NOTHING NEW IN 2022. It is going to look like a trendy market stall and then once we have drawn people in, BAM! we talk to them about waste and climate change!
Did the council supply your litter picking gear?
We got a grant from the town council to buy some equipment like high vis vests and got donations from a group called Pledge2Recycle operating in Kent. We also associate with an established group called Dealwithit! who operate the beach cleans. We have a locker which is overflowing with our litter picking equipment and washed and cleaned litter which we use to decorate our float at the annual Deal Carnival!