It’s Scotland’s shop window, the nation’s premier tourism destination and host of one of the world’s biggest arts festivals. 

But Edinburgh - at least partly thanks to the sheer numbers of visitors it attracts - is also often filthy. 

The year before last - in 2021-22 - it was the dirtiest council area in Scotland.  Now - as The Herald revealed yesterday - the capital has cleaned up its act. 

According to gold-standard independent surveys from Keep Scotland Beautiful or KSB, Edinburgh has a cleanliness score of 86.3%, up from 82.2% in 2021-2022 and 81.8% in 2020-21.

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The percentage tells us what proportion of the city’s public spaces - streets, parks, squares etc - were found to be “acceptable”.  Reversing the numbers reveals how many of the checked spots were unacceptable - meaning that rubbish  was accumulating.  That figure is 13.7%. 

Edinburgh has been replaced by Inverclyde as Scotland’s dirtiest council area. 

In an unofficial league table of litter calculated by The Herald, it has leapfrogged Dundee and Glasgow but still lags well behind Aberdeen. But all the big cities score below average on litter. This is not surprising: rubbish follows people, even - or not least - when they are on holiday.

But how did the capital spruce itself up? And what challenges does it still face, not least from mass tourism, including short-term holiday lets in traditionally high-density residential areas?

Scott Arthur is convener of the city’s transport and environment committee. That makes the Labour councillor Edinburgh’s chief litter-buster. But also means he has to think about the big structural problems that cause rubbish to get in to the environment.

Sometimes this sounds simple. “One of the issues we have in Edinburgh is our communal bins,” he explained. “Often it is not local residents but other people who are dumping next to the bins or allowing them to overflow. These bins are behind a lot of the street cleanliness issues we have in Edinburgh.”

This is a familiar problem - and one that also affects parts of Glasgow. Tenements sometimes do not have space for communal bins at the rear and so they are put on the pavement. And end up being used by non-residents so much that they overflow, their contents ending up blown in to the streets.

But there is an added complexity in Edinburgh. “These communal bins cause problems generally but there are particular issues in areas with high student populations at the end of terms, when a lot of stuff gets dumped.

“It is not just the students, it is the landlords. There are also particular issues within Airbnb areas as well because you get more people and they are getting take-away food more often than others.”

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Arthur is describing a problem well documented across Europe with short-term let tourists staying in residential areas not always being familiar with, for example, bin collections.

The city - like other parts of the country - is currently regulating AirBnbs. The short-term let industry lobby has warned new red tape - planning and licensing rules - will damage the tourist industry. But local authorities facing issues like overflowing bins have to balance benefits with costs. 

Arthur stressed the council wants to get on top of communal bins. “We are going through a process of renewing them, revising our uplift schedule, getting them cleaned more often,” he said.  “We will also have a team which will react quite quickly to any issues around communal bins. 

“Because we do know that people are really sensitive - if you live next to these things and someone has dumped a mattress next to them, it can be absolutely horrendous.”

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As elsewhere there is another problem with such communal bins. 

Businesses - which are supposed to pay for their own rubbish removal - will sometimes use then to avoid bills. Arthur cites a call he received from a resident who was worried plans to move a bin would inconvenience a local restaurant. “It should not have been using the bin anyway,” he said. “And, of course, AirBnb operators are businesses and should not be putting their waste in communal bins either: they should be dealing with their own waste.”

Edinburgh and the Lothians in the last year before the pandemic had 5.3m tourists  - clocking up more than 20m night-stays. Arthur and other officials are eager to bolster the capital’s attraction as a destination - but also to tackle sone of the problems mass visitors bring. 

This is where we deal with one of the less often discussed kinds of waste that gets in to our streets and public places: the human kind.

Data from Keep Scotland Beautiful includes dog-fouling but not people-fouling. But mass tourism is generating muck in public places - most commonly because visitors cannot find a public toilet.

The Scottish Government aims to enable local authorities to impose a tax on stays. Edinburgh has been campaigning on these for some years. 

“These tourists are very welcome in the city and I do not think they are creating more waste than residents,” Arthur explained. “But the sheer number of people in the city does mean that our litter bins have to be collected more often.

“I think this is a point that residents will often make. Like me, they are proud people from all over the world want to see Edinburgh. But they are ashamed by what they see on the streets. So that's a big driver for us is to actually get the the city  improved, to look good for visitors, and for residents to feel proud.”

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“We have been talking about using the tourism levy to fund public toilets.

“Because the lack of public toilets are some parts of the city does lead to anti-social behaviour during the summertime. 

“Somebody joked about it being tourist ‘lavvies’, rather than tourist ‘levies’.”

Arthur suggested Edinburgh’s suburban beach neighbourhood might get a convenience paid for by such a tax. 

“We are looking at Portobello - it is not confirmed but it is something we are considering,” he said. “On a sunny day you can get a lot of people coming out to the beach - and there are no public toilets there so they end up doing all sorts of things.”

Arthur’s administration has put more money in to street-cleaning. Earlier this year - in a move that is not reflected in the latest litter survey data - Edinburgh’s council committed another £3m to rapid response clean-up squads and other measures. 

The councillor, however, defended staff, stressing the mess the city - like many others - got in to during the pandemic was not workers’ fault.

Even when the cleanliness score was the worst in the country, he said, the street-sweepers were working well. There just were not enough of them - and that they may not have had the right kit.

Labour took control of the council as a minority administration in 2022 - it had previously shared power with the SNP.  “One of the first things that happened at the administration was that we asked officers to develop a plan to deal with litter issues,” Arthur said.

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“So it wasn’t just us randomly saying that  we want to spend more money and we want council staff to work harder. We asked what were the things needed to turn the situation around. Officers came up with a plan. And then we managed to allocate an extra £3m.”

Edinburgh was hit hardest by last year’s industrial action. Arthur said Labour and opposition councillors were keen to see workers get more money and feel valued. 

But the strike had an unintended consequence. It showed just how much people in the city and visitors throw away. Scotland has an on-the-go eating, smoking and drinking culture.

For Arthur, the big surprise was how many coffee cups end up in bins. Officials across Scotland are now looking at that particular issue. But the councillor stressed that reducing litter is not just a problem for local authorities, but for citizens too. 

“Sometimes I get messages saying the council could be ashamed of itself because somebody has left empty beer cans in the park after a barbeque,” he said. “But I think we know the problem is not that there was not a council official waiting patiently for people to finish their beer. The problem is that people do not clean up after themselves.”