‘It’s a dirty job - and we love it!’

Sheffield's Street Cleaners at work around the city centre. From left, Kerry Wilson,  James Lilleker , Lee Sterland and Philip Hawkins
Sheffield's Street Cleaners at work around the city centre. From left, Kerry Wilson, James Lilleker , Lee Sterland and Philip Hawkins
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Dawn has not yet broken over Sheffield but already a small army of street cleaners are out in force.

At 4am on a Wednesday morning, the city centre is cold, dark and almost empty except for Sheffield Council’s Streets Ahead team of sweepers and operatives.

Every day they must empty 415 heavy bins, wash pavements clogged with chewing gum and sweep litter from the streets to make sure it is ‘grade A standard’ by 8am – when it will be filled with commuters and shoppers once again.

Summer is one of the busiest times, as events and finer weather bring in the crowds, along with students’ freshers’ week with all its pizza boxes and beer bottles.

But the job, one of the dirtiest in the city, goes much further than picking up rubbish.

The team can deal with fly-tipping, graffiti and road-kill – as well as lending a helping hand when required.

Operatives have leapt into action to tackle fires, reunited lost belongings with their owners and even called emergency services when people fall ill in public.

Steve Gardener, a former bus driver who has been a street cleaner for eight years, said: “I’ve helped people – sometimes they’ve fallen down and cut their head so we’ve had to ring the police or ambulance.

“We are like a secondary ambassador service really, giving people directions and helping them out as much as we can.

“I do enjoy my job – especially the people you work with and meeting other people as well.

“I think we do a good job – people don’t realise how hard it can be keeping the city up to standard.”

Staff head out to their patches from the Streets Ahead depot on Olive Grove Road, Heeley, every

On a weekly basis they sweep 1,180 miles of streets, and empty 3,334 bins, whatever the weather – although during snow they help to clear away drifts.

Among the worst areas for litter, unsurprisingly, are Division Street – where half-eaten chips, smashed glass and takeaway boxes are rife during The Star’s patrol with the team – and the West Street area.

The team said the best aspect of the job was seeing the transformation that can be made – and seeing the city how others never see it.

The night-time nature of work can mean that cleaners are subject to abuse from drunken revellers and also see the dark side of human nature.

Dad Les Marsh, who was washing pavements around Barker’s Pool and has done the job for 30 years, said: “We’ve found bodies, I think they found one four years ago on Townhead Street, and sometimes people are even making bodies – having sex!

“It happens in dark place, under trees and in corners. You just have to carry on doing your job.”

The litter on Division Street was being tackled by Paul Raynes, a street cleaner for 17 years.

The 43-year-old said: “The best thing about the job is it is different and you get to meet different people – you get all sorts of characters.

“Some people do think it’s a prank to go in front of the sweeper or shake it, we do get some abuse but you just have to drive away.

“I do think littering has got worse in Sheffield over the years.”

As the city started to come to life, with the odd cyclist, early commuter and Moor Market opening for business, Fargate was filled with machines hard at work.

Lee Wolf, 44, was driving a van which houses waste from new street bins, which have two sections for recyclable and non-recylable rubbish to be emptied.

During big events such as the Tramlines festival staff try to ‘clean as they go’ while staying safe during the fun.

Dad Lee, a street cleaner for 20 years, said: “If you see the mess left after Tramlines and other events, and then you came back three hours later, you wouldn’t know that an event had happened.

“People don’t believe it was here – and it was the same with the Tour de France.

“The public are okay – we have a crack in the morning if they are heading home from a night out but it is just a bit of banter.

“I hope I will carry on doing it forever.”

Sheffield’s 23,127 fly-tipping reports in last two years

Litter is a controversial issue in Sheffield - and a Streets Ahead boss said staff share the public’s ‘frustration’.

The team has responded to 23,127 reports of fly-tipping, often the reason for complaints to The Star from residents, in two years.

Its education team also works with schools to deliver an anti-litter message and helps people organise litter picks. Community groups and, in the past, students have helped to clear rubbish from communities.

Darren Butt, operations director, said: “We have a lot of community groups who are a big help to us – they do a phenomenal job. We really do want people to show respect to the city as a whole by reducing the amount of litter on the street.”

Every month 500 tonnes of litter is collected from Sheffield – equivalent to 40 double-decker buses full.

“It is frustrating we are picking up this amount of litter and fly-tipping from communities”, added Darren.

“We do a lot of work with Keep Britain Tidy and our own Phil the Bin campaign.”

Life is never dull for the street cleaning team, which also has incident support units on call 24 hours a day and HGVs sent out to clean main roads.

There are 12 main shopping areas, including Ecclesall Road, London Road, Abbeydale Road, Manor Top, Woodhouse, Woodseats, Chapeltown, Firth Park, Hillsborough, Crookes, Broomhill and Darnall, where cleaning efforts are focused.

Other parts of Sheffield are divided up into zones which receive a concentrated clean every 13 weeks.

Streets Ahead also offers staff an education programme where they can learn computer or English skills.

To volunteer for litter picks call 0114 273 4567 or email streetsahead@sheffield.gov.uk