Inspired by childhood memories of a community’s blitz against beach litter, Oxford alumnus George Monck now heads a charity with a mission to beat a deep-seated social blight.
By Lindsey Harrad
‘The story of my life has been a graduation from literae humaniores to litter,’ says George Monck (Christ Church, 1976), former management consultant and now chief executive of charity CleanupUK, which focuses on helping communities in deprived areas to tackle their local litter problem. ‘The research that’s been done recently into the knock-on effects of litter is fascinating, especially the link between litter and crime, and the fear of crime,’ he says. ‘Keep Britain Tidy’s annual survey of the state of the nation in terms of litter showed for the first time last year that the most littered areas are the most crime-ridden areas. It’s a much more important issue than just how many crisp packets there are blowing about.’
Monck’s own interest in litter was sparked at the age of six, when he participated in a litter pick organised by his parents on Woolacombe beach in Devon. ‘It made a lasting impression on me, especially seeing the community working together to take part.’
That early inspiring moment offered a glimpse of a key solution to the enduring problem of litter, borne out when Monck investigated many years later. ‘My view has always been that litter is the responsibility of everyone, and after sending a questionnaire to 430 local authorities to find out what they needed in order to better tackle the litter problem, the answer that came back was unanimous: we need to get the whole community involved.’
Monck’s first step was to work with the then president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the author Bill Bryson, on setting up the Litter Action website, which now acts as a thriving hub and resource centre for nearly 700 regional litter-picking groups. But it soon became apparent that as a fledgling charity with slender resources, CleanupUK needed to focus on communities with the greatest need.
‘Our first major project on the ground was connected with the London 2012 Olympics, when we set up the Beautiful Boroughs project, encompassing Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Greenwich, with the idea of helping people living in these less affluent areas to get together and help make their community clean.’
The appeal of litter picking, of course, is that almost anyone can do it and within an hour even a small group can make an enormous difference to the look of a public space. But Monck and his team soon realised that the benefits went much further than cleaner neighbourhoods.
‘We saw that we were helping people, through the medium of litter picking, to meet their neighbours, to become more friendly with each other, to feel safer on their streets, and it empowered them to build a stronger community.’
The Beautiful Boroughs project has now expanded into Barking and Dagenham, Camden, Enfield, Haringey and Redbridge and the charity eventually aims to replicate the initiative in other deprived areas across the country.
It’s CleanupUK’s approach to gently encourage everyone to take better care of their communities. ‘We want to pull people into being responsible citizens rather than pushing them; we think a nudge in the right direction can be powerful and still gets things done, but in a more positive way.’
Litter image © Maciej Bledowski via Shutterstock. Portrait reproduced courtesy of George Monck.