Meet the street cleaners tackling litter 'epidemic' in Sheffield

Street cleaners Andrew Fullwood, Douglas Field and Jude De Couto in Crookes
Street cleaners Andrew Fullwood, Douglas Field and Jude De Couto in Crookes
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Decked out in their hi-vis uniforms, or 'full banana' as they call it, the army of street cleaners fighting a daily battle to keep Sheffield smart are hard to miss.

But the yellow brigade often go largely unnoticed as they do your dirty work, with many people seemingly taking their essential task for granted.

Street cleaner Chris Freeman on Ecclesall Road

Street cleaner Chris Freeman on Ecclesall Road

Joining them on the front line opened my eyes to the sterling job they do stemming the rising tide of litter threatening to swamp our streets.

Still bleary-eyed, I meet the team at 5.45am on a Monday morning at the Olive Grove Depot in Heeley - the hub of the street cleaning operation - where rows of street sweepers and vans are lined up ready for action.

I soon hit the road with street cleaner Jude De Couto and Sarah Bradley, operations manager for the street cleaning division of Streets Ahead, the 25-year £2bn streets improvement and maintenance contract between Sheffield Council and private contractor Amey.

We head first to Devonshire Green, expecting to see it carpeted with cans, bottles and food wrappers - unwanted reminders of the warm weekend which brought hordes of sun-seekers.

Street cleaners Raymond Hurst and Tony Tomlinson on The Moor

Street cleaners Raymond Hurst and Tony Tomlinson on The Moor

But we arrive shortly after 6am to find the green looking pristine, bar for the odd stray can and several squares of turf scorched by barbecues.

It could be a set-up, but Sarah seems genuinely surprised to find the 4am team have already been and gone.

Sheffield's growing night-time economy means street cleaning is very much a round-the-clock operation these days, she explains, with a new overnight team recently introduced to empty the bins filled by night owls spilling out of the city's clubs and bars.

Next stop is bustling Ecclesall Road, which I'm told is one of 12 'principal' shopping parades in the city to be cleaned three times daily.

Street cleaner Lewis Turner on The Moor

Street cleaner Lewis Turner on The Moor

The popular student hangout is not so bustling at 6.30am, I find, with the team of street cleaners having the strip largely to themselves.

Among them is Chris Freeman, who has been doing the job for 40 years and says the amount of litter being dropped has grown significantly in that time.

"It's basically a tip. This is a student area and you can tell from all the takeaway wrappers they've had a good time," he says.

"It's especially bad now because it's the end of term so they're all having leaving dos."

Devonshire Green at 6am on a Monday, following its early morning clean

Devonshire Green at 6am on a Monday, following its early morning clean

Dedicated teams are tasked with cleaning 'principal' spots like Ecclesall Road, Crookes and London Road, Sarah tells me, making the most of their local knowledge about which corners the wind blows dirt into and which bins fill up most quickly - though bin sensors showing which are full recently went on trial.

Sheffield's street cleaners are a friendly bunch whom Sarah describes as 'ambassadors' for the city, but their workload is constantly growing due to what she called the 'epidemic' of littering in this country.

Sarah says people often comment to her that if you go abroad the streets are spotless, and ask why that is not the case in England.

"I don't think we have any teeth," she says.

"It's very difficult for the enforcement team to take it anywhere because of the evidence gathering. FPNs (fixed penalty notices) are issued, but you can't be everywhere."

Last year, Sheffield Council issued 849 such on-the-spot fines to litterbugs caught in the act - around 16 a week.

But the council says it still spends more than £4m a year clearing litter from the city's parks and streets.

Sheffield's street cleaning team, whose responsibilities also include scrubbing off graffiti, pulling up weeds and removing fly-tipped waste, today numbers around 120.

Sarah says they are doing a 'brilliant' job and getting some 'really good' feedback, which she tells me is hugely appreciated.

"There's a mostly positive reaction from the public," she says.

"We much prefer 'you're doing a fantastic job' to 'here you go, mate, pick that up', and thankfully it's the former about 80 per cent of the time. Knowing their work is appreciated does mean a lot to them."

There can be few jobs where your daily achievements are more readily apparent, and the teams in Crookes and on The Moor in the city centre tell me the satisfaction of a job well done is one of the most rewarding aspects of their role.

Jude says he much prefers being out and about to his old job stuck in a factory, where he felt like a 'hamster' at the wheel.

But this is an all-weather job and the cold and rain can be tough, not to mention the sweltering summer days when you roast inside the protective clothing.

The other downsides include clearing vomit, dog muck and even - occasionally - human excrement.

Having met a handful of the street cleaning crew, I'm handed a grabber and put to the test myself.

I soon understand what Sarah means when she says it's an 'addictive' occupation. The sense of accomplishment at picking up one of the fiddly wooden stirrers cluttering the doorways of cafes along the moor is akin to the thrill of mastering chopsticks.

But it's dispiriting to see planters used as ashtrays and even more frustrating to find litter surrounding benches yards from a bin.

And, watching the masters in action, it's clear I've got a lot to learn before I'm up to speed.

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