Bristol: green giant or litter bug?

Sustainable Leaders | Europe

By Meerabai Kings, Kingfisher Writer

Published December 13th, 20211

In 2015, the city of Bristol was named The European Green Capital. Today, 74% of Bristolians say the city has a litter problem, and the city ranks as just the fifth greenest city in the UK. While many Bristolians are striving to clean the city’s streets and environmental record, it seems that the city’s larger organisations are the ones letting Bristol’s green standards slide.

Bristol has long been regarded as a ‘green’ city and was awarded the title of European Green Capital in 2015. Just six years ago, Bristol was home to more cyclists than any other UK city and had the lowest carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to its low carbon economy that employed around 9,000 people.

Bristol was crowned the European Green Capital of 2015, but the city’s green standards seem to have slipped in the six years since. | Robert Reedman / Flickr

Bristol also hosts four city farms, eight nature reserves and over 400 parks, meaning that in 2015, over 90% of Bristolians lived within 300 metres of parklands or waterways. If this is not impressive enough, the Avon Gorge supports 27 nationally scarce plant species, including the Bristol onion and Bristol rock-cress which are not found anywhere else on the UK mainland.

But could this status be considered greenwashing? A form of trickery that organisations use to distract consumers from real environmental issues, sweeping them under the rug.

Jump forward seven years to 2021, it seems that Bristol’s long-term green goals do not correlate with the current state of the city. Despite being one of only four UK cities on CDP’s 2020 climate crisis—a list of cities that ‘urgently builds resilience and rapidly cuts emissions’, Bristol has let its green standards slip.

Bristol’s cycling scene has been overtaken by six other UK cities, with Cardiff voted the UK’s best cycling city and even London racing past Bristol in the ranks. Just earlier this year, the NatWest Group crowned Sheffield as the UK’s most eco-friendly city, with Bristol at number five.

The Avon Gorge runs beneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge and hosts 27 nationally scarce species. | Martin G. / Flickr

This opens the question, where have Bristolians gone wrong?

Well, they are putting their best foot forward with recycling. Unlike some cities, households in Bristol separate their recycling which makes the waste management system more cost and time efficient, evident from Bristol’s recycling rate in 2018 being 2.3% ahead of the national average. With Bristolians recycling more and more each year, each household produces 27.2 kilograms less waste each year, the same weight as a Labrador!

But is recycling enough? Almost all everyday items can be recycled but it is far from a simple process, and still requires high energy inputs and transportation.

The aluminium in the coke can you had at lunch is the most efficient material to recycle, as they are rolled into sheets and then sent to manufacturers all over Europe. The tin your baked beans come in and the aerosol from your hairspray are sent to Wales, and melted to be used in car doors, fridges and more bean tins.

‘Bristol’s recycling rate in 2018 is 2.3% ahead of the national average.’

The bottle of wine you may have had with dinner is sent to Essex, where it is remoulded into new shapes. Your cardboard pizza box is sent to Kent, along with the newspaper you tossed away after reading, which will be back on shop shelves in just a week, covered with the next week’s news.

Your plastic yoghurt pots and water bottles travel to Northamptonshire, where they are remoulded into more plastic bottles in as little as six weeks. Old engine oil is purified in Wales and used in power stations; Two gallons of the old engine oil, that’s 16 pints of Bristolian Cider, can power a UK household for 24 hours.

This mural, painted by local artist Jody Thomas, shows Bristolians solidarity with environmentalist Greta Thunberg who visited the city in February 2020. | K. Evin / Flickr

But despite the city’s recycling habits, which still result in a huge amount of energy usage and emissions, 74% of Bristolians think there is a litter problem in the city.

In 2020 a staggering 7,000 tonnes of waste was collected from Bristol’s streets, which cost £6 million to dispose of—money we can all agree would be better spent elsewhere. Mayor Marvin Rees has launched two schemes, Clean Streets Enforcement Campaign and The Big Tidy, to mitigate the problem.

The former imposes fines for ‘environmental crimes’, £100 for dropping litter (including chewing gum and cigarette butts) in the street, £100 for not sorting your domestic waste properly and £400 for fly tipping, to name a few. The Big Tidy crew have cleared almost 500 tonnes of rubbish from over 900 Bristol streets since October 2019—an impressive amount!

But even Bristol’s impressive recycling system and council-led schemes have not cleared the city of all its rubbish, so Bristolians have taken matters into their own hands.

Charities, such as Surfers Against Sewage and Clean Up Bristol Harbour, run regular litter picking sessions for locals to get involved in. Clean Up Bristol Harbour is a monthly event in which participants collect floating rubbish that accumulates in the harbour. Surfers Against Sewage also collect litter, though they take their litter pickers along the Avon Gorge, rather than in the City Centre.

The Clean Up team rely on fundraisers and donations and work in close communication with Bristol Waste and the Harbour Conservancy. Clean Up volunteers find all sorts of rubbish in Bristol Harbour, from vodka bottles to chip boxes, toys to lighters, and bottles to cans. In September 2021, the team even found a Top Deck Shandy can—they stopped making those in the 80’s!

Bristol Harbour is an iconic part of the city, now tainted by litter in the water. | Andrew Whitman / Flickr

But let us give credit where it is due; Bristol is also the birthplace of many other sustainable initiatives aiming to tackle waste. Take the Refill App, a campaign led by Bristol-based City to Sea, which connects users with places to refill on water, rendering plastic bottles redundant.

According to The Epigram, The University of Bristol’s student newspaper, Bristolians use 66,500 disposable cups each day, with only one in 400 reaching a recycling bin. CanCan is a new initiative, in the form of an app, aiming to make Bristol’s coffee habit sustainable. Users scan a QR code on a CanCan cup and return it to a drop-off point where it is cleaned, ready for reuse. Not only does this reduce litter around the city but also the carbon emission that Bristol emits.

When criticising Bristol’s green status, it is, of course, important to think about the bigger picture when it comes to the environment, and the effect Bristolians have on it. This means thinking beyond Bristol itself, how do the actions of Bristolians affect the environment further afield?

CanCan’s cups are carbon saving after just three uses, but this is just one app in a big city. How do larger organisations fare in carbon emissions and eco-friendly initiatives?

Take the University of Bristol, the largest independent employer in the city and with a total income of £682 million in 2020. In 2015, months after Bristol was named Europe’s Green Capital, students from the University of Bristol protested the University’s £2 million investment into fossil fuel giants, such as Shell and BP, deemed a ‘betrayal to the city’s position as European Green Capital’ by The Epigram.

In February last year, five years after the initial protests, the University announced that it had completely divested its investments into the fossil fuel industry. However, the University’s pension scheme through the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the largest private pension scheme in higher education, invests £1 billion into fossil fuel guzzling companies. According to the University of Bristol’s website, eligible staff are automatically enrolled onto the USS scheme.

2015 saw students from the University of Bristol protesting the University’s £2m investments into fossil fuel giants such as Shell and BP. | / Flickr

A green city is not an easy definition, but a multifaceted status that must encompass the state of the city itself, as well as its effect on the global environment.

It’s swings and roundabouts for Bristol, a fallen green giant of Europe, which, despite sterling recycling efforts, is a city with dirty streets and, it seems, dirty investments. But individuals and even small businesses in Bristol aim to clear the city’s streets and global footprints.

And so the debate goes on; is Bristol still a green giant of Europe, or has it stooped so low that the litter bug label has stuck?

Featured Image: Nick | Flickr

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