Is the U.K. still the dirty man of Europe[i]?

Out of a forsaken corner and institutionalised space a diverse garden emerged during ‘Clean for the Queen’[ii]. This happened despite the glaring contradiction between any clarion call for a tidier realm on one hand, and on the other, the public who accommodate the modern commodity economy that drives dirt into the tiniest spaces[iii] of this sceptered isle and generates the greyness[iv] that has given rise to a campaign.

Clearing debris, dereliction, rubbish, surplus and waste (material outputs) from the site and then re-cycling it[v] formed Stage 1 of the project and amounted to 96kg/m2. That there was so much dumping on this comparatively tiny plot was a jolt to the senses even though almost everyone notices that environmental degradation caused by dumping is commonplace and has become widespread.

What escapes the notice of many though is that an encyclopaedic list of nuisances flow from dumping – and all the different material outputs uncovered on just 142m2. They are burdens of production that connect this small area to the problems of the environment in many parts: asbestos[vi], building materials[vii], scrap metals[viii], scaffolding equipment[ix], sacks of 14 different, non-biodegradable polymeric materials[x], batteries[xi], broken glass[xii], kitchen cabinets, food[xiii], toys, tools, vehicle components/spares, electrical/electronic equipment[xiv], chemicals, cleaning agents, clinker[xv], clothing, crockery, coal, coke, cosmetics, sanitary items, bike locks/components, paints[xvi], cheap jewellery[xvii], first aid items, hypodermic needles and much more. Some of the other things that were unearthed would have mystified a Mellors or goaded a Watson to search for known associates: a clutch of assorted knives, a bullet, a Molotov cocktail, 2 ransacked safes, handbags, wallets, luggage and plenty of ‘unmentionables’. ‘Gobbed’ out gum[xviii], cigarette filters[xix], smoking accessories[xx], aluminium foil ‘wraps’[xxi] cat poo[xxii] and bags of dog muck[xxiii] were in the mix too.

Officially this street corner was never a landfill site even though the material outputs suggest otherwise. A potted history of the site (Fig. 1) confirms this and shows that a succession of activities took place there that were never as offensive or as smelly as unofficial dumping and fly-tipping.  

Fig. 1 The Site

Geo-morphological history

Superficial geology: 130 million-year-old London Marl partly overlain by Taplow gravel

Soil

Results of a citizen’s science project with OPAL[xxiv]:

300 mm deep + some ‘made-up’ ground

pH = 5.5          

Handling test: moist

Calcium carbonate test: no calcium

Soil colour: grey/brown

Soil compaction: easy

Soil texture: silty clay

Soil ribbon: >50mm, earthy, sweet, fresh

Drainage test: <3 minutes

Vegetation cover: <50%

4000 cc test pit: 12 immature Aporrectodea caliginosa and 3 immature Lumbricus rubellus[xxv]; 6 millipedes; 1 bug; 1 snail

Land use history

Poor pasture until 1919 when nearby Hill Farm was developed as a Homes for Heroes social housing estate.

Cricket ground: 1919 - 1936

Social housing estate: 1936 - 2017

Fenced-off, low-maintenance shrubbery: 1936 - 2016

Air raid shelter, cabbages, potatoes: 1939 -1945

Dumping ground and bolt hole plus 4 ‘wolf’ specimens of Robinia pseudoacacias[xxvi], 1 Prunus, 1 Acer purpurea 1970s - 2016

Accessible community and wildlife garden: 2016 -

Native floral history[xxvii]

Bramble, Hawthorn, Horsetail, Artemisia absinthea

Recent wildlife history:

RSPB Annual Garden Bird Surveys 2008 - 2017:

5 -7 species

Garden bird list 2016 - 2017:

9 species

Neighbourhood bird list 2001 - 2017:

34 species

Butterfly Conservation Society Survey2017

5 species of butterflies, 3 species of moth

Current

Gently sloping 142 m2 of a 284 m2 community physic and wildlife garden

London W10 5JG

Unofficial access points for utility companies

Stage 2 of the project culminated on 14th June when rampant Robinias were pruned. Sadly, this paled into insignificance as ash and soot from the ghastly and grisly fire at Grenfell Tower floated down.

In the context of building this urban, community garden and incorporating a bee and butterfly-friendly zone, reference can be made to the current geological era we are living through - the Anthropocene. This era of the Holocence[xxviii] dates from around 1712[xxix] when we started to ‘deposit’ a new stratum on Albion. Throughout Stage 1 the project also confirmed the reality and concept of the Anthropocene and its layer called the technosphere[xxx], which has been calculated to account for 50kg/m2 worldwide[xxxi]. Much of this mass is infrastructure or useful stuff though. In contrast, the 96kg/m2 is nearly all rubbish, or to be more accurate, spent resources of production that are in the wrong place, or for which the so-called circular economy does not cater. The different things unearthed could almost certainly be replicated elsewhere in the country where the soil has been smothered or contaminated by an estimated >50kg/m2 of debris[xxxii].

The significance of this is that the UK has a geological heritage of many different soil types[xxxiii] due to a diverse geological history that includes every era except the Miocene. In a short time the technosphere of the Holocene era therefore imposed uniformity on soil diversity. This contrasts dramatically with that slow, natural process of soil building[xxxiv] – that thin, living layer of countless organisms that supports terrestrial life around the world and that can be ruined in a day.

In the same context it is also relevant to consider the outputs and inputs[xxxv] of the garden project as a whole, and to draw attention to some environmental and social benefits that are frequently overlooked. An accessible, diverse garden with permaculture beds, fruit bushes/trees, over 100 different species and many more varieties depends on fresh inputs: both material inputs[xxxvi]and sustainable material inputs[xxxvii]. These amounted to a total of 235.4kg/m2[xxxviii]. This total mass however includes reclaimed, recycled, salvaged and second-hand material inputs of both kinds[xxxix] that can be discounted[xl] because they do not impose significant, additional environmental burdens, and do not add to the technosphere of the Anthropocene. They represent the relocation of resources that were already available, in order to propagate and prolong life. Discounting resulted in a remainder of 5.6kg/m2 of material inputs and 54.0kg/m2 of sustainable material inputs. Since all inputs for the garden sustain, prolong and enhance life rather than dissipate it, it could be argued that none of the inputs should be classified as environmental burdens, particularly because their impact is further discounted over time by biological productivity on the site and the increase in sustainable material outputs and closed-cycle outputs. This logic was not pursued however.

Fig. 2 Outputs and Inputs

 

   Kg

Kg/m2

Kg/m2

Kg/m2

Kg/m2

Stage 1 Clearing

         

Total material outputs

13632.0

     

-96.0

Stage 2 Building and planting

         

Material inputs

16272.0

115.4

     

Material inputs - discount

15594.4

 

109.8

   

Material inputs - discounted

     677.6

   

5.6

 

Sustainable materials inputs

17039.0

120.0

     

Sustainable material inputs - discount

9389.0

 

   66.0

   

Sustainable material inputs - discounted

7650.0

   

54.0

 

TOTAL INPUTS

8327.6

     

+59.6

Stage 3 Growth

         

Sustainable material outputs

       >0.0

       

On-site, closed cycle outputs

       >0.0

       

MASS BALANCE

       

-36.4

  

Setting discountable inputs against material and sustainable material inputs resulted in a total of 59.6kg/m2. This was then balanced against the 96.0kg/m2 of material outputs achieved through clearing, recycling and remediating. The mass balance is 36.4kg/m2. With time, labour and “moments of imagining[xli]”, the project therefore dealt with more environmental burdens than it created. It is a lower figure than Leicester University’s global average of 50kg/m2 although it needs to be acknowledged that, before discounting, the inputs amounted to 33311Kg or 234.6kg/m2, which is considerably more than the total 59.6kg/m2 of discounted inputs.

From the start the objective of the garden project was not to affirm the benefits of reclamation, recycling, reuse (second hand) and salvage, yet it did. The project also succeeded in securing some sustainable, material outputs[xlii], which are not included in the 96kg/m2 total. The ‘closed’ cycles on the site, which will grow in significance over time and are an aspect of environmental sustainability, yielded material outputs too[xliii]. Nor was the objective to illustrate something of the colossal impact of the Anthropocene and its component, the technosphere. Yet it did – in kg/m2. It also indicated that dumping has gone way beyond ‘fouling one’s nest’ and reached the point of ‘self-harm’.

In order to provide some balance to this quantitative account of the project, the ‘soft’ bonuses that flowed from the project are spelt out in Fig. 3. In the future these will grow in importance. For the present though, they give reason to the conservation and defence of natural and life-support systems and belie the truths about value production offered by ideologues of the modern commodity economy. Given that we have been enlightened to the facts that the universe is not only weird, but weirder than we can ever imagine and that “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what[xliv]”, how can ideologues be so sure that they are correct in subjecting the whole organic world to the demands of value production?

Fig. 3

Action taken

Environmental/social benefits

Coffee grounds and sand to mark pathways

Increase in plant diversity on 142m2

Marking trip hazards and covers to buried utilities

Aluminium wheelchair ramps

Albedo effect change from 0.17 to 0.30

                                            

                                             0.17 to 0.45

                                             0.12 to 0.65

                                             0.17 to 0.70                                                                            

Intensive management (142m2 in W10 5JG) with the Dalgarno Physic Garden (142m2 in W10 5JE)

Validation of a North Kensington neighbourhood of low-income tenants on social housing estates and residents.

Less toxicity and fewer hazards for wildlife and children

Informal dissemination of information

A boost to social cohesion

Scope for street-corner dialecticians[xlv]

Diverse planting

“A cosy place for wildlife”[xlvi]

Aesthetic enrichment

Arrows: Japanese Arrow bamboo

New wildlife: 6 spp butterfly, 4 spp moth, 8 spp of feeding and visiting birds, 4 spp fungi, 2 spp nesting, charms of visiting Goldfinches, flocks of Long-tailed tits.

Feathers & palm leaves for Notting Hill Carnival

Chicken food

Classroom for family workshops

Commemorative planting

Conservation projects

Funerary flowers

Informal education resource: NHS community champions and passers-by

Space for outdoor science projects

Substances for dyeing and printing textiles

Site for photo-shoots

Respite from indoor pollution[xlvii]

attractive Scents

Surface run-off[xlviii] reduced

Solids trapped from the equivalent of ≥30 diesel-car exhausts per year[xlix]

Wild plant refuge for 6 spp

1930s barriers removed

Access facilitated for ambulant disabled

Appearance improved

Hazard to children and wheelchair users eliminated

Increase in useable space

Well-being effect[l]

Formative pruning

≤142 kW flux for the whole garden[li]

More daylight for neighbours

Access to buried utilities: chambers, meters, valves

Damage to buried utilities mitigated

Denser shrubbery for nesting birds

Blind corner eliminated

Ground flora diversified

Perimeter habitat of logs for detritivores

Gabions filled with rubble from the site

Boundary to uneven ground

CO2 sequestration[lii]

Habitat for alpines and lower plants

Improvised seating

Creation of a micro-climate/habitat

Waste management

Habitat for pollinators and Robins

More microbialdiversity[liii]

Defence against infection

Rainwater tank of >1420 litres installed with overflows directed to the garden.

Hence, the UK’s 6-year cycle of pluvial flooding is partially mitigated.

Salvaging sand, chippings, timber, planters, pots, window boxes et cetera

2 local dumps cleared

3 local gardens cleared and improved

The Borough’s waste stream is reduced

Straw bales recycled to the garden

Impromptu seating

Habitat creation and plant diversification

Visual interest

Rubbish clearance, waste disposal

Access to 142 m2

Fewer hazardous and toxic materials on site:   e.g. broken glass, asbestos, batteries, chemicals  

Bird feathers for Notting Hill Carnival

Hedgehog runway

Foul/putrid smells replaced by Petrichor

Access to controls for buried utilities

Derelict WWII air raid shelter uncovered

Construction of 1 low level and 9 raised, permaculture beds

Access for the disabled and children

Water conservation

Waste management

Perimeter railings adapted.

Reduced risk to children and the disabled

Vertical gardening

Display information and flyers

Notice board recycled and installed

Niche for trailing/climbing plants

Although these qualitative benefits derived from creating this kind of garden connect to the everyday, there are barriers to its effectiveness in nurturing a more life-affirmative approach to our surroundings. They include passivity and social alienations.  

Nicolas Holliman                                                                                                     2017

The People’s Postcode Trust grant-aided the garden and Corner Nine Arts Project supported it. This article commemorates my twin brother Jonathan who was a conservationist, plant geographer and co-founder of Friends of the Earth, Japan.



In the 1980s the EU assessed the UK Government’s record on environmental protection as poor. Prime Minister Thatcher presided over this although she promoted the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer 1989. In the meantime the label - the Dirty Man of Europe - stuck.

An initiative launched to mark the 90th birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth II. In 2017 Keep Britain Tidy Campaign launched the Great British Spring Clean.

E.g. Matches found in the gut of edible, inshore fish; plastic waste reduced to an air pollutant through ‘corrasion’; pollutants that crossed the human blood/brain barrier and have been detected in the brain e.g. PM2.5s and less.

Greening Grey Britain – a campaign by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) launched in 2017.

E.g. Western Riverside Waste Authority, Traid, Scope, local scrap metal merchant, battery re-cycling stations.

Asbestosis and Mesothelioma are caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres.

The greatest mass of urban waste from cities like New York and London is wastewater, followed by construction waste. London’s waste from construction amounts to 100 million tonnes per year. (“Professional Builder” Vol. 39 No. 3 March 2017)

Metals retrieved from the site tell a story about wasteful production, wastage of resources and the UK’s failure to encourage a reduction of its environmental burdens by smelting more scrap instead of exporting it zones where regulations are weak.

6 boards, 4 poles, 7 footplates, 35 clamps, 3 couplings, 17 debris netting ties, 3 pole caps, 1 hoist. Poles and boards were re-cycled to 2 scaffolding companies.

Since plastics were first manufactured, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics have been produced worldwide. The U.K. produces 8 million tonnes of plastics annually, which accounts for 8% of total, estimated world production and a very small percentage of this is recycled. Worldwide, an estimated ≤12.7 million tonnes of plastic material enter the oceans each year (Greenpeace 14/03/17). Also in 2017 less than10% of plastic packaging was recycled in the UK (BBC R4 “Today” programme 15/04/17). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch of plastics mixed with chemical sludge and non-plastic debris trapped in the North Pacific Gyre extends from the West Coast of the USA to Hawaii and similar trash vortices can be found in the North Atlantic and Indian oceans. A briefing of British Members of Parliament given on 9th May 2016 by researchers from Kings College, London and the Institute of Environment, Health and Societies at Brunel University announced that ground down pieces of plastics are a new air pollutants that harbour traces of toxic chemicals. On the 3rd September HM Government announced a ban on the use of plastic micro-beads in cosmetics and a few healthcare products to take effect by the end of 2017 yet many other products containing these micro-beads are not included in the ban. The Marine Conservation Society’s annual survey, made public during the 2016 Easter holidays, showed that one-trip plastic bottles and cups make up the greatest volume of rubbish found on the UK’s beaches.

The batteries contained cadmium, lead, lithium, mercury and zinc and constitute hazardous and toxic waste.

In the UK broken glass bottles cause injuries that have to be treated in the A&E Departments of local hospitals.

In the Netherlands, households account for 38% of avoidable food waste.

(Netherlands Nutrition Centre, “Consumer Food Waste” Fact sheet, December 2014). In the Dalgarnos the percentage is probably higher, judging from the giveaways, takeaways and throwaways that land on the garden.

Directive 2012/19/EU and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations 2013 relate to responsible disposal. These regulations will be broadened and a new Directive will take effect on 01/01/2019. 2 million tonnes of WEEE are generated each year in the UK.

PCBs used widely in the manufacture of electrical and electronic equipment, and that are present in WEEE, were detected in the fat tissues of shrimp-like crustaceans living 10 000 metres down in the Mariana Trench. (Paper given by the team led by Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University at the Conference on Deep-Ocean Exploration, Shanghai, 08/06/16; A, Jamieson in: “Nature Ecology and Evolution”, June 2017)

The former Kensal Green Gasworks used to re-cycle its clinker and slag locally as bedding for paving slabs on footpaths. (Personal communication: an elderly woman, and member of the local history group at Notting Hill Methodist Church, whose father worked in the coal gasification plant). It resulted a more lasting solution than the quick dollop of sand so favoured by the contract paviours of today.

An estimated 59.44 million litres of unused paint is discarded in the UK annually. (Community Reuse donation scheme organised by B&Q Ltd., 2016)

Gerald Ratner’s throwaway comment about the poor quality of jewellery sold in his chain of shops may have been taken literally.

Local authorities in the UK spend £60m/year on removing bubble and chewing gum (BBC R4 15/04/2017), which harbours people’s DNA and an unknown range of microbes.

The world’s oceans are strewn with non-biodegradable cigarette filters. Commoner, Barry “The Closing Circle - Nature, Man & Technology”, Book-of-the-Month Club, August 1971.

Matches, matchboxes, disposable lighters, clay pipe fragments, cigarette packets, filter tips, waste from vaping.

Packaging used by the trade in illicit substances.

Cysts of the cat parasite Toxaplasma gondii in the soil are an infection risk.

Toxocara canis can transmit from dog faeces to humans.

Open Air Laboratories - explore nature  

2 of the 25 species of native earthworms found in the U.K.

During the summer months in the UK, 200-240 litres of water/tree/day are extracted from the earth. Capel Manor College, London.

London Natural History Society, ‘Plant List for London”, 6 Vols.,1959

The Anthropocene era produced the technosphere; a layer several metres deep of mines, infrastructure, buildings, machines, products and railways that overlays or disrupts the biosphere. Mankind’s interventions in the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and water cycles are also part of the Anthropocene.

Newcomen’s engine liberated mankind from the 1kW/m2 natural, solar flux and made 4kW/m2 available. James Lovelock, “A Rough Ride to the Future

This layer was added to two other layers of the Earth, the biosphere and cryosphere,

A study by geologists at the University of Leicester calculated that mankind’s impact on the Earth’s surface totals 3 trillion tonnes or 50kg/m2. J. Zalasiewiez et.al., “Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: a geological perspective”, in: “The Anthropocene Review” (2016)

25% of front gardens in Britain have been paved over, often to make way for car parking. BBC News-online 26/12/2015

A cross-party group of M.P.s gave the first ever report to a British Prime Minister on the UK’s failure to protect the diversity and richness of its soils 2/6/2016.

Over the course of 5-6000 years Nature builds one inch of topsoil, according to the U.S. Soil Conservation Service – an institution that dates back to the time of the Dust Bowl in 1930s and Rooseveldt’s New Deal.

Following a procedure devised by the Society of Toxicology and Environmental Chemistry (SETAC)

Material inputs include ironmongery, wheelchair ramps and equipment for harvesting rainwater.

Sustainable material inputs include mains water, wood and compost.

This includes bulky items such as water for irrigation and reclaimed soil.

i) e.g. salvaged stone slabs/cobbles, containers/planters, surplus paint

   ii) e.g. re-claimed soil, spent coffee grounds, waste lemon rinds, pine needles, wood.

According to SETAC, reclamation, recycling, re-use and salvage is a way of discounting any initial, environmental burdens for land, water and air generated by an activity or product.

W B Yeats

Biological productivity: culinary and medicinal herbs, cut flowers, funerary flowers, a commemorative tree, decorative foliage for events, soft fruit, vegetables, salad leaves, leaf compost, plant material for dyeing and printing textiles, canes.

Gravel for drainage, clay for creative workshops, oxygen, water.  

Sir Arthur Eddington.

Jack Common, “Kiddar’s Luck

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 2017

In Germany the public are now advised to air their homes for at least 10 minutes/day in order to clear the fumes given off in the domestic environment by synthetic goods and materials and some household activities.

The Environment Agency, 10/03/2017

Research into medium-sized gardens by the RHS publicised in March 2017.

Franco Basaglia and his colleagues of the Democratic Psychiatry Movement in Italy concluded that the de-institutionalisation of space improves mental well-being. Roger Ulrich’s research indicates that a green, de-institutionalised space supports physical well-being and reduces patient recovery times.

The natural, solar flux has ranged from 1 to 1.3kW/m2.

Waste masonry was placed in gabions. Recent findings of Newcastle University’s research project SUCCESS (December 2016) give theoretical support to this because the calcium in concrete, lime mortar and building dust sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere, more efficiently than natural peat land, to form CaCO3.

Exposure to diverse microbes in Nature can help people strengthen their resistance to common infections and diversify a now reduced digestive, micro-biome that is implicated in illnesses such as some cases of obesity.