Wanstead Flats Pickers — restoring natural beauty with bags of enthusiasm

Wanstead Flats is a stunning natural wilderness bordering the urban sprawl of Newham, East London. A popular attraction for locals and tourists alike, for many it’s the closest they get to open countryside. Sadly, a substantial minority also see it as a dumping ground. But the Wanstead Flats Pickers are fighting back in impressive numbers.

Sarah Mbatha is lucky to live on the edge of Wanstead Flats. She describes it as a beautiful wild space full of birds, that’s popular with runners, families, footballers, dog walkers, picnickers and ramblers. She obviously loves the area but found herself increasingly frustrated by the huge amounts of rubbish some visitors left behind. Instead of just getting angry she decided to own the situation, taking over a successful clean up group in August 2015, despite being busy with young children and a demanding full time job. “I was a bit reluctant, but I believe in taking responsibility. If you want something to change then you have to try to do it yourself.”

The group was already attracting a core of around ten regulars, but given the size of the area — and the problem, Sarah wanted to do more. This is where CleanupUK stepped in. “I didn’t know where to start. They helped me with practical planning, taught me how to promote the group, how to attract people and made me think about what I actually wanted to achieve. One of the most useful things they got me to do was to make a note of numbers — of bags collected and of people attending. That’s been a real motivator.”

The numbers are inspiring. The group, which meets on the last Sunday of every month, regularly attracts at least 30 people and up to 43! And they come from all demographics, ages and nationalities: people who’ve lived in the area for decades mix happily with newcomers. “We’re a very friendly group and we make everyone feel welcome,” explains Sarah, “it’s an important part of what we do. It’s become like a family. I now know around 50 of my neighbours really well. It’s very sociable. Many of us meet up in the Golden Fleece afterwards – they give us free hot drinks”

The pickers regularly fill around 40-80 bags of litter a session and once hauled 120 bags ! And that’s not including the other fly-tipped oddities they’ve discovered dumped in this beauty spot, from 50 oil drums and a giant axe to abandoned cannabis plants. Although the rubbish keeps coming back they’re not disheartened. They’ve even persuaded the City of London Corporation, who look after the flats, to up their official litter picking from 0.5 of a person per week to two full-time people every week. The Corporation also supports the monthly litter pick, providing a truck and equipment.

Sarah has no regrets about taking on the group, which she says now takes minimal effort to promote and run. She explains, “I find litter-picking a joy. It relieves stress. We make the area look better and you can see the results of your efforts really quickly, which is something that a lot of people miss in their jobs nowadays. Every bag is full of litter that would still be out there otherwise. It’s satisfying. I feel proud of all we’ve achieved.” And there are many other benefits. “There’s always a strong wind on the flats – if it rains it blows right into you but whatever the weather people turn up. And it gets you out into the fresh air. The flats are beautiful in all weathers and seasons and we get to experience it. It’s amazing”

This group is a fantastic success story and to mark their achievements they are planning a pie and mash party in Spring 2018. By then they’ll be celebrating the clearing of 2,000 bags of rubbish! Could this be a CleanupUK record?

Wanstead Flats Pickers meet on the last Sunday of every month from 11-12.30 (excluding December). New people are warmly welcomed. Check @Flats_Pickers on Twitter for more info.