OPINION

Recycling Carnival

London

8 September 2017

Last bank holiday weekend, nearly two million revellers hit the streets of West London to form one of the biggest street parties in the world. Notting Hill Carnival, a gathering with a long history of bringing the community together, felt even more valuable and necessary in light of the recent tragedy of Grenfell Tower, which was deliberately zoned off from the Carnival route, but loomed large just off its western flank. New graffiti painted onto a railway bridge hanging over the crowds read, “Community is not a sale. Charity is no substitute for justice,” with “Grenfell” written in small text in one corner, showing that what happened to the inhabitants of the council block is still very much an open wound.

While carnival is essential to the community it serves – and this year more so than ever – it seems increasingly to be let down by the logistical backbone required to support it. You would assume the visual culture of the Carnival to mainly be about costumed dancers in bright colours twerking through Westbourne Grove in a call for civic freedom, but as the crowds have grown, it has become messier and messier, to the point that this year its main spectacle seemed to be the piles of rubbish left behind by jerk chicken eaters. “It is a bit weird that you are trying to rave and there is all this stuff under your feet,” said one partygoer who grew up in the area, “and there is nowhere for people to put all the rubbish; I don’t know if they removed them but I don’t remember seeing a bin at any Carnival.”

This year, 300 tonnes of rubbish were left behind, weighing about the same as 25 London buses. This inescapable rubbish, ranging from plastic food containers to drink cans and plastic bottles, accumulated through both days of the festival, until partygoers were left dodging heaps of refuse that had formed along the streets by about five in the afternoon. Covered with body glitter, their skin shone in the unforgiving sun of a rare moment of English summer, but their efforts to sparkle in the glory of free expression went amiss as they stood against the surrounding piles of yellowish polystyrene boxes mixed up with people’s half-chewed leftovers. One reveller was seen dragging a torn black plastic bag unwittingly along with his left trainer, while another was pushed into a pile of crushed Red Stripe cans lying in a gutter.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which employs a contractor to take care of the clean up, says it can’t quantify the cost of this operation as it pays on a retainer basis. But the council did say that more than 200 people worked into the early hours of the Monday and Tuesday following Carnival, along with more than 30 refuse trucks and mechanical sweepers. Councillor Mary Weale described it as a “staggering task.” The recycling company Suez are referred to in a Council statement as the carnival’s “refuse collection and street cleansing contractor,” the latter term summing up the depth of the task at hand after the street party goes home.

It is not only about getting rid of rubbish, but also giving the streets a deep clean. The carnival cleaners use equipment ranging from mechanical sweepers that empty out gutters to high-pressure pavement washers capable of whisking stains off the ground. Bus routes are treated as a priority, as well as market areas like Portobello Road, such that they can be ready for the next day’s trading. The Council website states that the entire area has to be cleared by midday on the Tuesday, the day following the Carnival, and it is expected to be returned to the standards set out in the Environmental Protection Act 1990’s code of practice by the following Thursday evening.

The Council was not able to comment on the percentage of the rubbish that will be recycled this year, suggesting that the speed of the clean-up is a priority and that most of it might end up in land-fill. Clearing up after a festival may be a tricky project, but carnival organisers could do more. For instance, food containers and bottles sold at the carnival could be required to be made of recyclable or biodegradable materials and disposable plastic could be banned. Money is no excuse; after all the Carnival contributes around £93m each year to London and the UK economy, according to the most recent investigation by the London Development Agency, which took place at a time when the event was smaller than it is now.

Britain’s festivals vary a great deal when it comes to how much they recycle the thousands of tonnes of rubbish produced each year. According to research carried out by Forge Waste and Recycling, the worse offenders were Latitude Festival and Leeds Festival, although in recent years they have put measures in place to improve recycling procedures. Glastonbury recycled 54 per cent of waste produced at the festival, and Cambridge Folk Festival managed to recycle all but 2 per cent of its waste in 2015. Such examples suggest that it is indeed possible for Notting Hill to do better.

Carnival brings people together, and long may that continue, but the wealthy London borough where it happens could set a better example. Carnival makes full use of the street as a community space – respecting that ethos includes making those streets an environment where people don’t end up dancing in trash.