Outside Charing Cross Post Office, tucked between some telephone kiosks, there is a big metal box on wheels. 

This is one of Glasgow’s last street bins for household rubbish. And that, say city cleansing officials, makes it a magnet for flytipping. 

So much trash was chucked in and around this container during the pandemic that it become a sort of social media star, a symbol for some of a “waste crisis”. 

Even Google Street View has captured the filth at this spot, which is just a short hop from where world leaders will meet in November for talks on saving the planet.

Is this Glasgow’s most famous bin? “It is certainly one of them,” says Stephen Egan, the council official in charge of keeping the city’s parks and streets looking their best.

“These bins are very unpopular. People don’t want domestic bins on the street. There are not that many of them – dozens but not hundreds.”

The giants – called Taylor bins after their manufacturer – crop up in neighbourhoods like Charing Cross or Govanhill where there is no alternative space, such as a back court, to put them. 

They are only supposed to be used by a few householders. In fact, Egan explained, such bins are being filled by passers-by and, crucially, businesses that should be paying to get their rubbish taken away. 

For him, this is one of the biggest problems facing the city: firms trying to get avoid commercial fees for waste removal. 

And the official is not just talking about small-scale littering in or near street bins.

An industrial scale dump – effectively an illegal landfill – is being operated under the M8 at Blochairn. The site’s operator, motorway management firm Amey, has blamed criminal gangs. 

Flytipping has soared across Scotland, the rest of the UK and Europe over the last year-and-a-half, according to national and international reports. Businesses, after all, have been struggling. Some have chosen to save on rubbish. 

‘Manky’ streets

EGAN is showing The Herald on Sunday around the back lanes and side streets of central Glasgow amid intense criticism of the council’s record on trash from both opposition councillors and one of its trade unions. One local Labour politician said the city was “manky beyond belief”.

The ruling SNP leader Susan Aitken has come under fire for saying she thought the city merely needed to be “spruced up”. The GMB has said the administration is in “denial” about a crisis. 

Egan – whose job is to monitor the state of the city streetscape – says he is both “puzzled” and “disappointed” by such criticism. 

“I have heard comments saying it is a filthy city,” he says. ”I have heard comments that there is a cleansing crisis. I see very little evidence that would support those particular views.”

That does not mean there is not what Egan calls “challenges”.  Keep Scotland Beautiful, after all, found that 17.5 per cent of places in the city it inspected were “unacceptable” in 2020/21. Only Edinburgh and Falkirk recorded worse scores. 

Egan believes his city is facing very similar issues to the capital, whose SNP-Labour coalition has not been at the centre of high-octane political rhetoric.

The pandemic, the official explains, forced cleansing chiefs to make tough decisions – some of which have contributed to more mess in streets. 

Officials in Glasgow – along with other local authorities – decided to prioritise domestic bin collections over street-sweeping, park litter-picking and weeding for public health reasons. 

The pandemic also dramatically changed where waste was generated. There was far less rubbish – and litter – in the central shopping drags but more in parks.

Covid has also speeded up the decline in city centre retail,  leaving more empty shops and opportunities for vandalism, especially graffiti, which Egan confirms is on the rise – and worse than he can remember.

The disease – and the lockdown designed to prevent its spread – ravaged the cleansing workforce. “We had staff who had to shield. We had staff who were frightened to come to work,” Egan says. “As a consequence, we had to take some staff off streets and a lot off parks and put them to deliver the absolutely essential services.”

Services are getting back to something closer to normal but Egan warns it will take time for the city to look its best again. A simple example: last year workers did not apply any herbicide in public places.

This year, they have only given streets and pavements a single dose of chemicals. That means workers at some point, Egan says, will have to get out hoes and manually scrape up perennial weeds. 

‘Challenges’

GLASGOW is big. There is a lot of work to do. “We have 56 neighbourhoods in the city and we have a population of 630,000 people,” he says. “I would accept that there are parts within neighbourhoods that I am not happy with. We have a plan in order to improve that. But I don’t think we can just wipe out what has happened over the last 18 months and some of the enormous challenges we have had.

“The reality is that parts of the service associated with street cleaning and parks have suffered as a consequence. Where we are just now, I suppose, is still in the throws of recovery. I suspect it will take the short to medium term to get to where I would want us to be.” How long is that? The official cannot say – nobody knows how the pandemic is going to develop. And the city still has workforce problems. 

“In Glasgow, I am sorry to say, we have a level of absence which, in terms of the industry norm, is probably three or four times that level,” Egan says. “That is a very significant figure. Some will be Covid related.”

As a result, managers are still having to divert workers to core services, such as bin collections. “Levels of attendance are not where we had hoped and expected them to be,” Egan says. “So we are having to move resources about and engage agency staff.”

At a recent council meeting absence rates of 20 per cent were cited. Officials say the cost of hiring agency labour contributed to a £1 million overspend so far this financial year in the department which covers cleansing.

One of the unions representing cleansing staff, the GMB, has claimed the council takes on agency workers to save money. Its convener, Chris Mitchell, insists there have been “cuts” and that Glasgow needs more “boots on the ground”. The council says that its overall cleansing budget has risen, not fallen, in recent years.

However, waste management costs are up too, not least that of landfilling for unrecycled general waste.

Egan is having his say as he walks what was once the notoriously dirty and now relatively tidy Sauchiehall Lane. This backstreet used to be full of overflowing bins from commercial waste operators serving local restaurants and shops. Some simple changes to how these were filled and collected has stopped them being abused by flytippers.

HeraldScotland:

But even as he strolls down the lane, Egan comes across a dumped bed and mattress. Glasgow recently followed most other councils and started charging for bulk uplifts. Egan is an officer and not a politician but he stressed the point of that policy was, above all, to get householders to think about whether they really need to throw things away, whether they can be recycled or upcycled.

Illegal dumping by individuals is one thing, mass commercial flytipping is another. The council last week announced a flytipping task force to clear public spaces. But such rubbish is not just a problem for local authorities. 

The council and its workers are not – despite a popular assumption – responsible for clearing private land, or even under motorways such as the M8. 

But local officials can punish businesses which do not have commercial waste arrangements in place. 

Frustration

Law-abiding business leaders have a double frustration. First, flytipping makes the city look bad and therefore does not look good for their trade. Second, firms which flytip or use flytipping waste contractors have a commercial advantage over those who do not.

Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, said his members “regularly” raised the the state of the city centre and cited litter in public spaces, graffiti and the poor condition of street furniture.

“As we understand it, the primary commercial issue the council is raising is illegal flytipping and we will not support any business engaged in this,” he said. “The chamber worked closely with the council and its members before the pandemic on adjustments to the system for the collection of commercial waste in the city centre and we will continue to do that. We are sympathetic to the council’s challenge in tackling the issue and are keen to work with them to overcome the problem as a matter of urgency.”

For Egan, the vast majority of individuals and businesses do their part. But it is not just the council’s job to keep the dear green place clean, even during a pandemic.