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To Bin Or Not To Bin, That Is The Question

One of the many legacies of the Industrial Revolution is the system of canals and waterways that runs through our towns and cities. Once they were home to warehouses and wharves with fleets of barges carrying colossal amounts of goods to and from ports and between destinations primarily in The North and Midlands.

In Holland today, 45% of the freight received into the port of Rotterdam is still transported onwards by canal. It’s the same for the port of Antwerp and from Amsterdam, over 45 million tons of cargo moves along its canals every year. In America, the New York State Canals have demonstrated that shipping freight by canal is more than 30% cheaper than moving it by truck and in addition there are huge environmental benefits: far less air and noise pollution and far less road congestion.

In Britain, however, commercial cargo has virtually disappeared from the canals and has been replaced with pleasure craft gently cruising along at a sedate maximum 4 m.p.h. The old buildings along the banks have changed too. Many have been converted into apartments, restaurants and shops and some into trendy offices where the tedium of gazing at a computer screen can be alleviated by staring at the serene, smooth water with sunshine sparkling on tiny ripples.

Shiny new buildings, often featuring huge windows and balconies to take advantage of the views have been popping up over the past twenty years. Some developments are particularly popular with young singles who either rent or buy these properties but tend to live in them for relatively short periods before moving on. This contrasts with the moored barges and houseboats that have become quirky and desirable homes. Their occupants stay for much longer and have created proper communities where residents assist and support each other as they share a common love of the life aquatic. They have long since been aware that canal towpaths are ideal for summer strolls, picnics and cycling and that their moorings are slap bang in the middle of town yet shielded from road traffic, noise and fumes. They are like a little oasis in a predominantly nineteenth century urban landscape. Other city dwellers have recently discovered this too.

Unfortunately, as these idyllic waterways have become more popular, they are in danger of being contaminated and spoilt by thoughtless acts of laziness as rubbish is being thrown into the water and along the paths. Amongst the most common debris are cardboard pizza and polystyrene hamburger boxes, coffee cups, crisp packets, cans beer, glass bottles of spirits, plastic water bottles, cigarette buts and some things too disgusting to mention.

Sometimes bits of this garbage have been imaginatively used by ducks in the construction of their nests but, more generally, this rubbish attracts mice, rats and urban foxes. This is evidence of a complete disregard for the unusual and delightful character of the canals themselves and spoils the outlook for the houseboat residents (who have to pay handsomely for their mooring rights) and passers by. Astonishingly, some of the worst affected areas along the canals are where waste bins have been installed. Instead of using them, the debris of modern life is cast around them with reckless abandon. To appreciate the sheer size of this problem, last year, a clean up programme along a 10 mile stretch of the Grand Union Canal resulted in the collection and removal of 10 tons of waste.

It is possible that the use of our canals as a transport system will be resurrected in the future but until then, if they are not shown the respect that they and other parts of our older cities need, they will become increasingly filthy and unsavoury. When coupled to the peripatetic nature of many of those living in the buildings along the canals, this may well signal a further nail in the coffin of our old, industrial city centres. But there is good news. The solution is readily available and in our own hands. All we have to do is use the bins!!!