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The Big Student Pollution Problem

Moving out month presents a load of environmental issues that various people need to take responsibility for.

by Davey Brett
09 July 2019, 11:13am

Photos by the author.

Every June, a unique migration occurs in cities across the UK: hundreds of thousands of students move house. Whether in Fallowfield, Manchester; Hyde Park, Leeds or among the black mould breeding ground of New Cross' Victorian terraces, near-identical scenes of last-ditch packing and chucking play out from north to south.

The aftermath of all this is obviously fairly grim – bins overflowing with broken Sainsbury's frying pans and unused textbooks, mountains of black trash bags littering the streets, skips piled high with assorted rubbish and stolen road signs – but at first glance it's just an eyesore issue: a not-very-nice thing to look at while you're lugging your shopping home.

But delve a little deeper and you're confronted with an environmental nightmare. Tons of waste, disposed of incorrectly, much of which is reusable. The easiest people to blame are the students – but again, delve a little deeper and what's revealed is a complex cycle of misplaced responsibility and unawareness.

rubbish outside house

In the streets surrounding Liverpool's Smithdown Road, the Labour councillor for Greenbank ward, Laura Robertson-Collins, knows the phenomenon well, having dealt with it since 2011. Blaming the students alone, she says, is too easy: "I blame the private landlords for most things because I think they just grab the money and don't have any concern for anything. But the university should be doing more, too. Everyone should be doing more. You wouldn't believe there was a climate crisis."

Fresh from exams, summer holiday fever in the air and with a huge amount of pressure to leave houses clear so residents can at least attempt to get their full deposits back, students just do a last minute mass-dump any unwanted items. Next, as Robertson-Collins points out, even if students do leave stuff in their houses, the builders and cleaners hired by landlords and developers are instructed to rid houses without mercy. Other factors play a part, too.

"Usually the bins are too full and then we can't do much," says Owain, a medical student who lives in the Smithdown area. "Anything we don't want is usually broken, hence it can't be taken to charity. Landlords should be aware that many people don't have vehicles and aren't local, so don't always know where to leave things. We have exams pretty much right up until the end of the tenancy, so it's always pretty difficult. You can't really do anything in advance, so it's a rush at the end."

As more students follow cheaper rents to more deprived areas – in Liverpool, local examples are the Kensington and Picton wards – the issue of student waste and recycling falls lower down the council agenda, especially as resources are cut by central government.

tv in a skip

The results are depressing. Throughout June, skips full of rubble and waste line terraced streets, while household items are piled high in front of properties or stuffed into any available bin – recycling or not. Miniature landfill sites pop up, prime for attracting further waste (fly-tipping is a problem in the Dales area of Smithdown) and arson, before all that waste is simply dumped in an actual landfill site.

It's easy to see why Robertson-Collins and local residents blame landlords and developers. With no business rates and an exemption from council tax for students, there's money to be made in student housing, with many absentee landlords offering little in return. Research commissioned by the local Dales Residents Group found that landlords in the Dales area alone, a sixth of the overall ward, receive an estimated £15 million a year in rent from students. Meanwhile, the local council foots the bill for the associated clean-up.

rubbish in a skip

Speak to residents, councillors and even students, and they will tell you the universities should be doing more. Although both Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Liverpool do work together on initiatives including Leave Liverpool Tidy, a green bag donation scheme for the British Heart Foundation, handing out promotional material and door-knocking, the reach and effectiveness of this work isn't enough.

"I think this is just the tip of the iceberg," says David Wheatley, University of Liverpool's Green Guild Project Manager, as he shows me this year's green bag donation haul tucked away in the student union. "The bags filled half a medium-sized van," he says. Speaking to Wheatley, you get the sense that, despite his best efforts, more responsibility needs to be taken by the university as a whole.

A short walk away from the student union, the evidence of this is stark. If the scenes on Smithdown Road are grim, the University of Liverpool campus isn’t much better. In mid-June, two skips next to on-campus halls sit with their bellies full. Televisions, clothes, bedding, food still in packaging and, ironically, even a plastic bin sit awaiting a destiny of incineration or landfill. Back at the union, an area is set aside encouraging students to donate the exact same items.

@_daveybrett