Some thoughts on collecting 100 bin bags of litter

I set myself the challenge of filling 100 bin bags of rubbish in a year doing local litter picks, and I did it! Yay! With time to spare too so I’ll keep going and keep updating the Facebook page until the year is up. At the time of writing this I’m still a way off my fundraising target for the Marine Conservation Society.

I’d like to tell you what it’s been like and what I’ve learned. Also I have a challenge for you (stay with me, don’t worry I’m not going to challenge you to fill 100 bin bags, please keep reading!)…

There were a few reasons for setting myself the challenge: 

  • I wanted to do something about pollution, the global biodiversity crisis, and climate change. There are lots of things you can get involved with and I’ll be writing separately about them soon, but I wanted something I could do immediately. I thought litter picking would be a good instant hit and would also give me an excuse to talk about the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans with people. 
  • I was tired of that sinking feeling you get when you see a piece of rubbish on the floor, especially the increasing number of covid masks I was seeing littering the streets around my home and my son’s primary school. Did you know that within a year of the first lock down, masks from Britain were being found 1000s of miles away on coral reefs in the tropics?
  • I thought if I made it a yearlong challenge and announced my intentions on social media, I’d be less likely to give up after a couple of months.

Here’s what I learned:

  • 100 bin bags is a lot of litter. I’ll be producing a large, zoomable image of everything I collected in 100 bags. Every bag I collected I photographed before removing all the recyclables to go in my recycle bin before dropping off the rest at an agreed place for my local council to collect. If you’re so inclined I’d recommend spending some time zooming around the image once complete. You’ll soon see the repeat offenders (Costa, MacDonalds, Lucozade, Yazoo, Fosters, Walkers, ‘cream chargers’, cigarettes companies, Starbursts, Fanta, Greggs etc). In the mean time here’s a taster of some of the bags I collected:
  • You can make a visible impact to your local area on your own. My son’s primary school road is really bad for litter. Once a week he and I do a litter pick on our walk home from school. We pick up every can, crisp packet, mask, cigarette packet on the road from the school gates to the entrance to the canal tow path and then along the tow path all the way home. The next day there is always some litter there again, and within a week there’s a bin bags worth waiting to be collected on the short section of road to the school alone. But we noticed that, after the school holidays (when we don’t do our picks on that road) it’s so much worse. A noticeable difference. So if there were more people doing it we could probably keep the road clean.
  •  People appreciate it and it feels good. I don’t do it for the thank-yous but there’s no denying it’s a nice feeling when people give your smile and say thanks, or beep their horn and give you the thumbs-up. Once someone gave me and my son an orange each from the bag they’d just bought from the market. Another time, as we popped into the bakery on our way home, we found out the guy in front of us in the queue had put £5 down to pay for our cakes as a thanks for our hard work.
  • You inspire other people to do the same thing. My mum does litter picks in her town now because of my project. A lady we met on the canal path one afternoon while doing our pick on the way home from school congratulated us on doing something worthwhile. We bumped into her again months later and she had a litter picker and a bin bag too.
  • You feel emboldened to get things done. After a few months of litter picking regularly on the same stretch of the canal I found one of those big leather beanbags fly tipped on the path. It had been broken open and polystyrene bean bag balls were all over the tow path and the surface of the canal. Birds were eating them it was a sad sight, but by this point I knew what to do straight away. The tow path is land belonging to the Canal & Rivers Trust and you can call them and tell them about stuff like this and they send someone out to clear it up. I have also got to know people at the council who I can let know about things too big to fit in a bin bag, and who provide me with bags and litter pickers.
  • Litter picking is actually quite mindful and relaxing. There’s something very satisfying about spotting a bright yellow empty sweet bag on the pavement ahead, pinching it with your mechanical litter picker and depositing it into your bin bag in one sweeping motion without breaking stride as you stroll along in the drizzle listening to a podcast and not thinking about much at all.
  • The people dropping the litter are only part of the problem, and as time has gone on I’m not even sure they’re the biggest part. Some people have always been litter-bugs, and others have always being the kind of people who take their litter home. The problem has got worse not because there are more litterers but because there’s more litter…

I’ve seen a few instances of littering in action on the canal tow path and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. When I’d see an empty cider can lying on the path I’d imagine someone arcing it over their shoulder while flicking anarchic V’s to the sky, but it wasn’t like that. It was just a guy finishing his drink and placing the empty can on the floor rather than carrying it to the nearest bin. Thoughtless yes, but not the villain I imagined. 

The problem is that as a society we are drowning in single use packaging. Everywhere we look we’re either being sold or advertised products wrapped up in single use plastic, glass and metal. Our homes, cars and bins are overflowing with it, it’s like a flood. Someone opens their car door and empty fast food boxes tumble out onto the street, or their front door and junk mail advertising fast food blows off their door mat onto the pavement. Over stuffed wheelie bins with gaping mouths belch out cellophane wrapping, egg boxes, multipack crisp bags. 

Companies appeal to and exploit our addiction to sugar, carbs and booze. Everything we buy generates waste and there are still so few companies making a meaningful effort to provide us with recyclable, or better, refillable options. 

With any luck the government will pull its finger out and give us the deposit return scheme it’s been promising sooner rather than later. That will mean that returning cans and bottles will earn you a few pence back from the cost of the item you bought. When that happens I would guess that most of the Lucozade, Coke, Yazoo, Fosters etc., cans I pick up will disappear from the tow path and pavements. But what we’ll be left with is the items that can’t be returned. Stuff like Costa and MacDonalds drinks cups and their lids, burger boxes, cigarette packets, crisp packets, sweet wrappers…

We need the deposit return scheme, now, yesterday! And we need manufacturers to get creative with how they package their products. Individually wrapped sweets inside another wrapper is pointless. A plastic stick inside a lolly is unnecessary. A plastic lid on a paper cup which is coated in plastic is ridiculous. It isn’t the litter-bugs giving anarchic two-fingers to the sky, it’s MacDonals, Stella Artois,Starburst (Mars) and Gregs… 

Most of this litter will either: find its way to the sea via the breeze then the rivers, where it will slowly break down and be consumed by aquatic organisms, poisoning its way through the food chain and laying waste to biodiversity, as it spreads to every continent on earth; or find its way to waste processing centres where it is incinerated releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere contributing to global warming. Two-fingers to the sky from the junk food industry.

What can we do?

  • Write to your MP and ask them why we don’t already have an effective deposit return scheme. Just type ‘who is my MP?’ into a search engine and you’ll find their email address in a couple of clicks. 
  • You can also find out how climate friendly your area is using this Friends of the Earth tool: which includes how much household waste is recycled in your area. It won’t be enough! Quote it to your MP in your email too.
  • Use your power as a consumer to boycott companies who use unnecessary amounts of single use packaging. Tweet at them call them out.

My challenge to you:

I don’t expect everyone to go out and fill 100 bin bags in a year (though by all means please do).  My challenge is for you to increase what you currently do by one notch of the dial. That would look something like this:

  • If you currently don’t do anything at all, I challenge you to start picking up any litter within 10m of your front gate.
  • If you already pick stuff up outside your house, extend it to the corner of your road.
  • If you already do that, extend it to the whole road once a week…

You get the picture. And don’t leave home without a bin bag and a glove (or a carrier bag to use as a glove) in the bottom of your bag. You can stick them in there ready right now. There have a been a few times over the past year where I’ve been out for a walk with friends or family and we’ve happened upon the aftermath of a crisps, sweets, pop and booze party at a bench in the countryside. It feels so much better clearing it up than it does walking past it. It’s not your mess, but it is you that feels soul destroyed when you walk past it. 

There are lot of big issues facing us all these day, and they can often feel daunting and insurmountable, but that’s all the more reason to get active. Let your actions reflect your ethics and try your best to leave the next generation something better than a nature depleted, rubbish strewn toxic dump!

Thanks for reading and if you’ve followed my progress on Facebook (@100BINBAGS) thanks for the support. I don’t think I could stop now if I wanted to so I’ll carry on and update the page now and then with relevant stuff so stick around if you’re interested.

Ecology – Tales from the Field, podcast Episode 6: Clare Sefton & Steve Parker

Episode 6: Clare Sefton & Steve Parker – South Lancs Bat Group

I met up with Clare & Steve at Clare’s house back in December 2019. We talked about what got them into bat conservation and how bats can completely change your life. How that first encounter with a bat can have you hooked, literally in minutes.
We also discuss the bat group/bat groups and the interesting work they do, but the main thing I wanted to hear about was the bat care network.
Did you know that there is a network of volunteer bat workers across the country who care for injured bats? It’s a fascinating world full of dedicated conservationists finding themselves in some often down right weird situations.

bat pic

*Photo courtesy of Andy Harmer

Ecology – Tales from the Field, podcast Episode 5: Andy Harmer & Roy Leigh

Episode 5: Andy Harmer & Roy Leigh – Cheshire Mustelidae

I met up with Andy & Roy at Andy’s girlfriends house back in November 2019. We talked about their careers in ecology as well as their extensive extracurricular ecological exploits including Andy and Rachel Hacking’s now legendary Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN) group. But the main thing I wanted to talk to them about was their current project, Cheshire Mustelidae: Coordinating the recording of mustelids in Cheshire, and sharing sightings, photos etc.


They say trying to see a stoat or weasel is like going out to find a rainbow, virtually impossible. So this project means cunning, stealth and ingenuity. To find the stoat you must become the stoat! So how do they do it?

stoat*Photo courtesy of Paul Quigley (@iggyquiggy)

Ecology – Tales from the Field, podcast Episode 4: Rachel Giles

Episode 4: Rachel Giles, Evidence and Planning Manager – Cheshire Wildlife Trust

I met up with Rachel at her home back in July 2019. We talked about Rachel’s career, her interest in and work to conserve Cheshire’s Local Wildlife Sites, and the sometimes daunting, but pressingly important subject of Net Gain.
As we face an unprecedented global crisis for biodiversity, how can the government mandated net gain for biodiversity from development be successfully and measurably achieved? And what can we learn from some of the old giants of ecology as we go about making sense of it?

Ecology – Tales from the Field, podcast Episode 3: Rachel Webster

Episode 3: Rachel Webster, curator of botany at Manchester Museum

I met up with Rachel in the Museum’s herbarium, way up in the roof of the neo-gothic, Hogwartian land mark of the Manchester Uni campus back in May 2019.

We talked about the collection and the people who contributed to it as well as Rachel’s role, her predecessors and other interesting characters from the herbarium, museum and science in general’s history.

Whether or not you think you’re into botany, I think you’ll like this one. And the corridor of boxes of plant specimens we recorded the interview in had surprisingly good acoustics!

Thanks so much to Rachel for her time. It isn’t the first time she’s walked me through the herbarium’s history and now I’ll be trying come up with a new project to give me an excuse to go back.

It’s such an interesting place. From the specimens to some of the old bespoke furniture they’re stored in, to the winding stair case that leads you up to the rafters of the museum to see it all, to the stories of the many people who’ve passed through it over the years, it’s like peaking behind the scenes at of the museum.


Ecology – Tales from the Field, podcast Episode 2: Helen Bradshaw & Jane Cullen

Fleur and I met up with Helen and Jane who are the records officer and chair of the WCBG back in 2019. We talked about the history and work of the group, their roles in it, the group’s ongoing badger TB vaccination programme and just badgers and badger conservation generally.
Thanks so much to Helen and Jane for their time and the sheer amount of information they impart in the interview it’s such good value!


thumbnail_in the trough

Thanks to the badger group for these photos.

Ecology – Tales from the Field, podcast Episode 1: Noell Leather

Long time no blog 🙂

I’ve made a podcast called ‘Ecology – Tales from the Field’. You can find it on the usual podcast apps and directories. Basically it’s me and my mate Fleur chatting to interesting people in the field of ecology and conservation. If you’re ‘into nature’ you should check it out. I think there’s something in this first series for everyone.

Episode 1 is out now. I’ll be adding a new episode every week for the next 6 weeks…

Epidode 1: Noell Leather, Volunteer Reserve Manager at Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Summerseat Nature Reserve.

Fleur and I met up with Noell who took on the management of Summerseat Nature Reserve over 40 years ago. The conversation covers what the Wildlife Trust was like back then and the joys and challenges of having your own nature reserve to manage.

Huge thank you to Noell for being our first interviewee. As you can probably tell we’re good friends and it was a pleasure getting together and finding our more about her life in conservation.



What did you see today?

This year we’ve been keeping a record in the office of all the different things we encounter while on the job. There are are lists for birds, plants, mammals, herptiles, moths & butterflies, and poo. Something can only be entered on the list once, there are no winners (because if there were, Simon would thrash everyone and it’d be no fun), we just want to see how much we see in a year between the 10ish of us.

It has the pleasant effect of turning every job, even the potentially dull ones, into a potential new find. Today I paid a visit to a waste water treatment works we surveyed for great crested newts last year which still has some fencing in place, to inspect the fence and check it was still a functional barrier. The filter beds with their revolving sprinklers attract birds in large numbers, who feed off the insects which the beds attract. Each round circular bed has a ring of wires leading from a central pole to the rim. Today the wires were bedecked in carrion crows giving them the appearance of macabre big-tops. Pied wagtails ran around on the stones below them. Some old, now defunct, beds have long overgrown with bramble scrub. A tree sparrow observed and chastised me from above as I walked past, and I caught a glimpse of a rabbit’s bottom disappearing into the thicket.

When I reached the fence line I started my perimeter walk and out of habit rather than necessity I turned over some of the left over carpet tiles, remnants of the bucket traps and carpet tile trapping surveys of last summer. Earth worm heads flinched back down their holes and centipedes flowed over and under stones or clods of earth. The contracted bodies of many slugs clung to the underside of the tiles but there was little else under the mats yet. The myriad of beetles were still absent.

Under an old plastic panel lying on the ground I watched a field vole zoom through its exposed labyrinth of tunnels in the damp, yellow grass. Then, under a tile I found two frogs and toad.  All three appeared still to be in a torpid state and I gently placed the mat back down. I returned to the mat a few minutes later having considered it and decided to move them. Ordinarily I wouldn’t disturb animals in this state but as they were on the wrong side of the fence it wasn’t right to leave them there. So I fetched an empty bucket, lined it with vegetation and placed them in.

I have a fondness for all wildlife, but I love toads. I genuinely love them, they illicit an emotional response in me that other animals don’t. When I look at a toad I get the feeling you get when you run into a really good friend. I can’t help but anthropomorphize them they just have such wonderful faces. This was my first toad of the year and my day was instantly made by finding it and I handled her with the usual care, plus a little extra due to her docile (even by a toad’s standards), dozy condition.

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I don’t anthropomorphize frogs. They exude wildness. Reflexive, instinct driven, dynamic and slightly repellent in their curiousness. If you pick up a frog they throw in everything they have to kick, leap and headbutt their way out of your hands. These two took only a moment to come to life and become alert and escape driven.

I placed them in the hibernacular, constructed for  surveys last year and carried on, finding no more. Towards the end of my walk a buzzard dropped from a nearby tree, in that heavy fall then suddenly weightless swoop of theirs. Jackdaws yapped their disapproval and song thrush and blackbirds went about their business along the field margin. I wondered if I’d seen a raven, sat up a tree on the other side of the site, but it was just another crow. I scanned along the tree line through my binoculars and was rewarded with the sight of a male kestrel, glowing almost pink in the afternoon sun. I followed him as he flew from his tree, over the field I stood in and hung in the sky, treading air above me for a half a minute before going on its way.

Frog, toad and field vole all firsts for the work list. Not bad for an hour’s fence check.

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Vegging Out. Part 3.

More on vegetative plant identification. A useful stumbling block…

Attempt #3. Great Willowherb.

Keying out a dandelion and petty spurge using The Vegetative Key to the British Flora been reassuringly straight forward. I was feeling confident (cocky), so when I saw this growing in a wet ditch while out on a job I thought I’d have a bash at it…


That picture doesn’t show it very well but it was growing out of a water body. I had it in my mind that it was therefore going to be an aquatic plant. I don’t know my aquatic macrophytes very well so for all I knew it could be a young bog bean, marsh marigold etc.

The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

  • Leaves simple
  • Leaf margin toothed
  • Leaves alternate. This took me to KEY N
  • It’s a herb
  • Stipules absent
  • Latex absent
  • Leaves with hairs all simple or hairless
  • Leaves with pinnate or palmate veins
  • Petiole developing 1-2 hollows (Ranunculaceae) Key RAN. So now I’m thinking maybe it will be marsh marigold though if I’d looked at a photo I’d have realised straight away I was wrong, the leaves are totally different.
  • Leaves lanc to ovate, not orb, unlobed but weakly toothed.

Here is where I knew I’d gone wrong. I spent some time trying to convince myself that that the leaves could be described as lanceolate to ovate but they just aren’t! They are obovate if anything. I was seduced by the weakly toothed bit making it hard to let it go. You brain likes to latch on to a bit that works in a plant description making you blind to all the other bits that don’t.

So there’s lesson one: Don’t ignore the descriptive elements you don’t like. If it’s wrong it’s wrong.

Next it all kinda fell apart as these things sometimes do when you get stuck. I misread an early line of text and convinced myself I should have answered yes to:

  • Plant with submerged or floating leaves. Key E

Lesson two: Always read the key carefully and make sure you’ve understood it before moving on.

I started again and after a while trying and failing I admitted defeat and asked Miranda what it was. She took one look at it and said: “It’s great willowherb”. My heart sank. Oh yeah, I thought. “But it was growing in water” I said. “Yeah it often does” she said. “Oh”. I set about reverse engineering the key so I could see the route I should have taken.


It seemed to me that I would have needed a stem to use The Vegetative Key. I had another go using a young willowherb growing in my garden and again became stuck without a stem…


I consulted my favorite social media resources to check I was right. The BSBI on Twitter, and the ever obliging folk of Facebook’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland group confirmed my suspicions. I asked Sarah whether she had any advice on getting further than ‘willowherb sp’ with plants this size. Her advice was: “I’d walk on by…willow herbs are a really tough group, they also hybridise, and doing them vegetatively is tough enough without doing rosettes.”

Lesson three: You need a stem to identify willowherbs using The Vegetative Key.

The next day I was working in North Wales. I’d been rummaging around in some woods and was on my way back to the van, parked in a lay-by on a country road. I looked into the roadside ditch as I walked along and saw lots of young great willowherb (Epilobium palustre) growing there…


Lesson four: Mistakes and failures can be every bit as useful as simple successes. 

It took more than the key on its own to get there but knowing a species at every stage of it growth is so useful.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found it useful or at least reassuring. Onward and upwards! More to follow…

Vegging Out. Part 2.

Continuing getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.

Attempt #2. Petty Spurge.

Buoyed on by my success with the dandelion in my previous blog I ventured once again into my back yard with the aim of attempting to use The Vegetative Key to the British Flora to identify the first plant I saw. This meant ignoring 3 more dandelions for the sake of variety but in just a few steps I came across this unassuming little thing…


I thought it might be petty spurge when I saw it. I don’t know spurges very well but I vaguely remember someone telling me once that a plant that looks a bit like this was petty spurge so I had an idea what it might be. Less confident than the dandelion which seemed appropriate for my next attempt.

The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

    • Leaves simple
    • Leaf margin entire
    • Leaves with pinnate veins
    • Leaves alternate. This took me to Key K.
    • It’s a herb
    • Latex present:


As you can see the latex is obvious (please excuse the close up of my thumb nail. I googled what ridges mean on finger nails and apparently it’s a sign of age. I am in my mid thirties which apparently is the age you start getting all gnarley).

  • Leaves all on stems but never clasping with auricles (Euphorbia). This is encouraging as spurges are in the Euphorbia genus. On to Key KH.
  • Leaves hairless
  • Leaves >2mm wide
  • Plant green. Ruderal.
  1. 1.
    (of a plant) growing on waste ground or among rubbish.

While I bristle slightly at this apparent slur on my back yard I accept it’s a green ruderal.

  • Annual with vertical tap root. This kind of feature could cause me problems when I’m carrying out surveys for my upcoming urban botany project in which I intend not to kill any specimens while identifying them, but for now while I’m learning I allowed myself to pluck this one up…


And I was encouraged to see a pleasingly vertical, tap root.

  • This gets you to Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus).

This is easy, I thought. And I was of course quickly proved wrong. My next attempt was frustrating but useful. Blog to follow…

Thanks for reading. If you disagree with my IDs or have thoughts on the subject please comment. All feedback welcome.