Be the change: meet Bristol’s “Captain Tidy” Rob Umphray

Rob Umphray aka Captain Tidy

Does litter in the city bother you?

It bugged Bristol resident Rob Umphray so much that he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Cleaning the streets is “a partially avoidable problem”, says Rob Umphray who volunteers for Keep Bristol Tidy, a focal point for people across the city who want to tackle fly-tipping and litter.

‘All the research shows that if litter is on the street, more litter will be dropped’

Rob has picked no less than 738 bags of litter off the streets of Bristol since May 2014.

“We’re in difficult economic times. We could chose to spend money on cleaning the streets…or we could spend that money elsewhere”, he says.

No time like the present

Seeing the matter as everybody’s problem, including his own, Rob rolled up his sleeves and looked around his local area of Bishopston to see what he could do.

“I pick litter myself every week and recycle what I can. I have enough space in my black bin for stuff I can’t recycle.”

“There’s resource available from the council and Bristol Waste to support people. So if litter picks are being held individually or in groups and if you’ve got a volume of litter that you can’t deal with, the council will support you with that.”

For Rob and his network of volunteers, it’s all about setting an example to help change behaviour, basically taking on responsibility for your own environment.

“All the research shows that if litter is on the street, more litter will be dropped. So the more that we can collectively do to get litter into bins, get people to take litter home and ideally recycle it, the less we have on the street and the nicer the area is.”

But isn’t it unhygienic?
I now often see people picking up cans with their bare hands, because they realise it’s not dirty and they value a cleaner environment more than they value having to wash their hands when they get to work

“Anything to do with waste is automatically associated with being dirty. So people can be reluctant to pick up other people’s litter. I can understand that. I had to go through the same thing”.

But with a pair of gloves and a litter picker, you can overcome any fears that you may have about touching other peoples’ waste.

Rob points out that many things we handle are equally dirty. It’s about perception. Most of the money we touch every day is far dirtier than the litter on the street.

“I now often see people picking up cans with their bare hands, because they realise it’s not dirty and they value a cleaner environment more than they value having to wash their hands when they get to work.”

Rob doesn’t recommend opening up bags of litter though – it’s best to report them for collection and leave them be.

Rob has found social media an effective tool for highlighting litter issues around the city.

“There can be a lot of negatively on social media and sometimes it’s because people don’t know how to report issues to the council.

”If you report fly-tipping on the council website, the item will be removed within 24-48 hours.

“You can report online on your smart phone, very simply. I use social media as a way to let people know that reporting online is the best way to get things addressed.”

Social media is also useful for time-poor litter pickers to communicate: “There are litter pickers who pick solo and social media is a great way to keep in touch.”
“Once you start noticing litter, a lot of the people I spoke to feel quite isolated by it when other people don’t feel the same – until it reaches a threshold. Having social media is a great way of talking about the issue, rather than attacking.”

“In the 1970s when I grew up, we had The Wombles and the Keep Britain Tidy campaign… all of these television adverts advising us to take our litter home and not drop it. Nowadays those things don’t happen, so there needs to be a way to communicate that message.”

How to get involved
Keep Bristol Tidy emerged from the Street Scene group in the Bishopston, Cotham and Redland Neighbourhood Partnership.

They’re not affiliated with the environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy, but they do participate in litter picks organised by the charity.

If you’d like to become a volunteer or get advice about what you can do to improve the cleanliness and tidiness of the city, go to the Keep Bristol Tidy website.

Quick wins
There are number of things you can avoid 80% of problems associate with waste, says Rob.

Label your boxes with your house number – to help the crews get them back to the right place. If recycling boxes get left on the street, they quickly turn into bins as people dump things in them.

Put the net on your green recycling box – that contains the waste and stops stuff getting blown out.

Turn your bin perpendicular to the pavement so that people can get past.

Separate out waste – pizza boxes are great separators for example. So you have your cans in one area and your plastic and bottles in another.

Rinse out plastic bottles – a good way to do this is along with your washing up. That will keep your boxes clean and keep the foxes, cats and flies away.

Undo the tops of bottles and squash them flat to make the item smaller, but also heavier and less likely to get blown around, then put the tops back on.

Use compostable bags if you can afford them. But if not, you can use newspaper – most places in Bristol get some form of free newspaper or keep your eye on other recycling boxes! You can even store food waste in your freezer until recycling day before transferring it to your brown box.

Make it easier for the crews to do their jobs. Sometimes they drop things and most of the time they pick it up. If the crews drop the odd thing, we could all just help pick up a couple of bits for a spotless Bristol. But if you see that the crews really haven’t taken care, then certainly report that.

Put all black plastic and polystyrene in the black bin even if they’re recyclable. Plastics are sorted by light – different types of plastic allow different levels of light through, which is unique to the type and colour of plastic. Black plastic doesn’t let any light through so it’s impossible to sort it by machine.

Watch our short film with our crews explaining what goes in each of your recycling boxes.

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