The green crusader who has single-handedly cleared almost 170 bags of rubbish from Mile End Park on his dawn raids and stumbled upon a unique form of urban archaeology.
Our parks and green spaces were something of a saviour over the dizzying number of lockdowns and restrictions we endured (don’t worry, we’ve lost count too). Our social interactions shrunk and were limited to our local green pastures.
But, during these park strolls and canal-side meanders, did you notice that our green spaces became distinctively less green, and a little more littered?
If not, we can blame this on our ‘trash blindness’, a term used when people have become desensitised to, or are unaware of, the litter around their urban landscape. But for Vivian Road resident, Iain Marshall, his increased use of Mile End Park during the first lockdown led to the exact opposite; he became aware of, as he describes, Mile End Park’s ‘unkempt appearance’ compared to its grander green sister, Victoria Park.
Frustrated with this, Marshall resolved to begin the thankless task of single-handedly cleaning the long-stretch of Mile End Park’s 32 hectares, equivalent to almost 20 football pitches. He started in May 2020 and, almost 20 months later, his enthusiasm for the job remains unabated. With walking boots strapped on, litter pick in one hand and bin bag in the other, he maintains his aim to clean the park four to five times a week, either before work or during his lunchbreak.
We meet outside Mile End Park’s Ecology Pavilion. Marshall is tall, perhaps around 6ft 2. He speaks with a gentle Midlands accent that matches his earnest round sea-blue eyes. Having grown up in Nottingham, he is proud to call Bow his home, after having moved here from Bethnal Green almost three years ago.
His attraction to the area is its access to green spaces: Victoria Park is where he goes for runs, Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for a wander, and Mile End Park for its long stretch by the canal. But, he says, he became ‘gobsmacked’ at the amount of trash he started to notice.
Marshall reels off the weird and wonderful rubbish that is carelessly discarded: a wig with its synthetic hair like tentacles stretched out on the grass; a leopard printed plastic bag; a full bouquet of fresh flowers; even a car bonnet.
He started documenting the finds on Instagram, using the handle @clean_mileendpark, and on Twitter, under @mileclean. He uploads photos of his trash finds in situ and accompanies it with a comical or light-hearted quip. Witty, yes, but it delivers a serious message: clean up after yourself.
Collecting rubbish could be likened to a modern-day form of urban archaeology; the findings capture a moment in time and reveal a great deal about the world’s present state.
Currently, Marshall comes across PPE. A lot. Rubber gloves, medical masks, and plastic visors lay strewn in and amongst the foliage. The paths leading to and from The Ecology Pavilion hide clues as to the building’s recent use as a testing centre.
Marshall says that he finds receipts of those who have had a test, and face masks chucked into the rushes and reeds of the Park’s pond. Marshall says how he finds this ‘puzzling’, because ‘If you have gone to get tested, it shows you’re thinking about the wider community but then to discard your mask, that is selfish.’
Demonstrating our growing propensity to socialise al fresco (another Covid hangover), Marshall finds polystyrene take-away containers and cans of beer around a bench near the Mile End Park climbing wall.
‘You start to imagine where this is all coming from because of the pattern,’ he ponders. He assumes it’s a group of friends who drive up on a Friday or Saturday night for a take-away and chitchat. A careless consequence to a convivial occasion.
It is not solely rubbish discarded in the last year or two that Marshall uncovers; some of it is decades old.
He found a light blue and pastel yellow Walkers crisp packet that had a best before date of 1992. He recently turned 30 and so, he says, to have that milestone as a comparison was ‘shocking’. ‘It just shows the age of how long everything we consume daily hangs around.’
Then there was another crisp packet (Walkers again) that he fished from the canal. This was a little younger, only from the mid to late 1990s because it had Posh Spice’s face staring up at him. ‘It looked fresh,’ he says, eyes widening with incredulity. He said he found it ‘disarming’ that such rubbish, submerged in the canal’s murky waters, stayed in its very state.
His efforts, however, have sometimes proven rather lucrative. He has found real-life treasure in the form of money; coins and £5 and £10 notes here and there.
But Marshall’s work can feel like a Sisyphean task. At the start of the year, he decided to clock his progress. Since January 2021, he has spent 149 hours litter picking and collected 164 bin bags. That is just over six days of continuous cleaning. He concedes that, despite the small rewards, he can find cleaning the same area disheartening. So, why does he continue?
A clue can be found in his choice of podcast, ‘Outrage + Optimism’, which he listens to while head down, his eyes ping-pong scouring the land for rubbish. The podcast’s hosts discuss the climate crisis and its solutions. He explains that part of his reason to litter pick is a care for the environment and desire to maintain his local park’s biodiversity.
But he also holds a solutions-based attitude: as anyone who knows what it’s like to live in a densely urban space, green space is precious. With trash decreasing its value, Marshall wants to do his altruistic act of cleaning the park to ‘allow people to enjoy the space as much as they can’.
Continuing his solutions-based approach, he is speaking to his local councillors to install more bins in Mile End Park’s rubbish ‘hotspots’, which mainly occur near to benches. He understands human nature; people won’t do the right thing unless they are nudged to do it through ease or convenience.
His work is starting to get him noticed; locals go up to him and thank him for his work. He has even inspired two residents, whose trash blindness has been lifted and now join Marshall in his efforts.
While he appears quietly proud of this (rightly so), it’s clear from his humble character that is not his intended outcome. Ultimately, this lone green crusader is cleaning not just because he wants to make the world a better place, but also for the spiritual benefits that a calming and harmonious green space offers all; something that is at a premium in the frenzy of a major metropolis. Either way, we could all learn something from Marshall’s simple but impactful endeavour to clean his local park.
If you enjoyed this article, then read our article on the history of Mile End Park’s Ecology Pavilion.
Can you support us?
As a not-for-profit media organisation using journalism to strengthen communities, we have not put our digital content behind a paywall or membership scheme as we think the benefits of an independent, local publication should be available to everyone living in our area.
We are powered by members. Hundreds of members have already joined. Become a member today from as little as £3 to support impact journalism and the local community.