Human finger among street cleaner finds

George Meaney and Gianni Satta tackle the never-ending tide of rubbish in the city centre and Leith. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
George Meaney and Gianni Satta tackle the never-ending tide of rubbish in the city centre and Leith. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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A HUMAN finger, animal carcasses and used syringe needles are among the bizarre finds on an average day in Edinburgh.

But grisly discoveries and scattered rubbish are all in a day’s work for the city’s army of street cleaners.

Gianni Satta, who moved to the city in 1996, is among them.

After sweeping the cobbled streets for more than a decade, he is unruffled. There is nothing the city could throw up that would surprise or shock him.

Not after what he’s uncovered.

Speaking in a broad Lancashire accent, he drawls: “I started off on the streets and I worked my way up to the level of a team leader.

“I have got a knowledge of what’s going on, and what should be going on.

“The things we have to go through are unbelievable.

“We have had to clean up blood and pick up human fingers.

“We are not cold-hearted but it is a job we have to do, and we have to get through it.

“Some issues bother us because they are clearly an environmental health issue. But the job is very rewarding and we are proud of what we do.”

Gianni is part of a three-man crew on patrol in Leith and the city centre – two districts traditionally blighted by litter and routinely falling below national standards of cleanliness.

But it is not for lack of trying from street cleaners, who insist they face an increasingly difficult daily challenge to keep on top of the rubbish

George Meaney, 45, who counts a dead deer among the more unusual detritus he has swept up, bagged and tidied away, said: “I think it is getting worse. People are just generating more waste than ever before. We feel like we are fighting against a rising tide.”

The “war on litter” has become a newspaper cliché but there is a very real sense that the city centre in has indeed become a “front line” in a conflict we are in danger of losing.

Another worker coming to the end of his shift, Paul Hutton, sums up the mood when he says: “For me the war is over for four days.

“When you clean a street in an outlying area it might last a week, while in the city centre, it might last an hour.”

Common problems include overflowing trade waste bins, and rubbish bags left out on the pavement. These automatically become a target for scavengers such as rats, gulls and foxes, forcing street cleaners to play catch-up on their rounds as they collect the rubbish strewn all around.

Armed with a brush and a pair of gloves, street cleaners also have a vast area to cover.

They not only dispose of the remnants from the night before like discarded kebabs, chip wrappers and, all too frequently, vomit (euphemistically dubbed “pizza pies” in the trade) but they are also tasked with mopping up after late-night brawls and horror car crashes.

They remove broken glass and needles – and much worse – to ensure Edinburgh’s historic streets remain do justice to its dazzling architecture.

Commuters peer down at their phones, wide-eyed tourists drink in their surroundings and businessmen strut purposefully to their next meeting.

But going almost unnoticed in Lady Wynd, in the Grassmarket, a street cleaner retrieves a broken umbrella from the gutter.

Another sweeps an avalanche of cigarette butts into a bag.

The team are powerless to issue fines or penalty notices – they are not strictly meant to confront litterbugs caught in the act.

But they can offer advice, relaying that prosecution for litter-dropping can carry a hefty fine.

Today, after approaching a nearby restaurant worker who has left oil drums 
on the kerbside, Gianni’s anger is burning.

“That is unacceptable,” he barks. “They should have crushed them and put them in the recycling instead of leaving them out.

“It encourages others to follow suit. That’s the type of thing we are up against, and it has a knock-on effect.”

He is referring to the “broken windows” theory – the idea that a well-maintained home is less likely to be vandalised than an shabby, abandoned hovel.

The team tend to focus on litter blackspots but they also have a new system that gives them advanced warning of problem areas, allowing them to better deploy over-stretched resources.

Their rounds includes Haymarket, the Grassmarket, Holyrood, the New Town and Leith,

Hazardous waste is their forte – broken glass and syringes are commonplace – but, in the rubbish stakes, repeat offenders include the Grassmarket, the Cowgate, George IV Bridge and the High Street

Young people are often unfairly stigmatised as prolific litterbugs, but street cleaners insist better education and awareness means youths are more mindful than their elders. It is the ‘we-pay-our-council-tax-so-you-sort it out’ brigade who can be the most challenging.

And it is the footsoldiers of the daily war on waste that clean up after them. The perennial battle rages on – despite 70 extra litter pickers being recruited to ensure Edinburgh gleams during the busy Festival season.

Good riddance to old rubbish is their mantra as they bag 15,000 tonnes of litter each year.

It is hoped better public awareness will lighten the load.

Stemming the tide of litter

A Cleanliness Index Monitoring (CIMS) scheme in March this year found that 94 per cent of streets studied were of an acceptable standard.

But a recent cleanliness survey by Keep Scotland Beautiful (KSB) scored the city centre at 66 points – the lowest ranking of all Edinburgh districts and more than ten points below the west, south, and south-west.

Of the 86 streets inspected – including some in Leith – seven failed to meet the acceptable standard of cleanliness.

Litter hotspots include: Calton Road and Antigua Street for cigarette ends; Coates Place for recycling bin spillages; and overflowing trade waste at North Clyde Lane and Thistle Street Lane.

The city centre has not passed a single KSB cleanliness survey since it began in 2011.

Heritage bosses blame the high volume of pubs and exceptional footfall it attracts.