Edinburgh: a tale of two cities

Hannah and I have spent quite a bit of time over the last couple of months (since the formal start of the project in May) looking at waste (and where it ends up) round about Stirling.  We’ll be adding blog posts about some of this soon, but I thought I’d start us off with an account of one of the times we went out looking for/at street-side waste together.

A few weeks ago, we took a day trip to Edinburgh with the intention of looking at street-side waste in a different context to Stirling.

We had decided to walk from Waverley Station to Craigmillar via Duddingston Loch, then back through the city centre and on to Leith. Our first impressions, going from Waverley train station to Holyrood park, were of a strangely litter-free city. We passed a mattress propped up by a doorway: it was clearly labelled as awaiting pick-up by the Council later that day. The park itself was almost spotless. No cans of Dragon Soup or purple Strongbow; no crisp packets, no discarded fag butts. We started to speculate about the street cleaning regime: had the Council scheduled nightly cleans, so that each morning presented a pristine vista for the city centre denizens and the now-returning tourists?

We spotted our first piece of litter – if it counted as such – on a flat piece of grass by the path. A black, lacy vest top with a pink velvet lining visible at the back. The kind of top a woman might wear for a night out, drinking and clubbing (although of course the clubs were still all shut). Here, in this city – famed for crime novels that draw on a complex history and current reality of social inequalities, as well as for intellectual achievements and culture – the stories I started to imagine explaining the top’s presence in the park were dark, sordid, twisted. Not the kind we’d want to tell to children. Hannah tried to shift the mood, thinking of why a top like this might have fallen out of someone’s backpack, but I was riffing on Ian Rankin and what Rebus might have thought, coming across this piece of evidence early on a bright, Friday Edinburgh morning.

Black lacy vest top in Holyrood Park

Not long past the top, we saw our first genuine piece of trash: a discarded McDonald’s bag, flattened against the still dew-covered grass. I felt a strange relief – the absence of the usual street-trash had been slightly unsettling, as if we were walking through part of a city under authoritarian rule, where littering was punishable by public humiliation at the stocks or worse. But as we continued up the High Road, that strange feeling returned.* Unlike in Stirling, even the busy undergrowth on the slopes at the sides of the path were completely free of discarded trash.

Where’s the Dragon Soop?

I should have been impressed, but instead I was disappointed.

On the path down to Duddingston, we started to see the odd discarded drinks container – irn bru, mostly. We also started to talk about the qualities of stories that make them “work” with children. We talked about stories that adults enjoy reading – Have You Seen My Hat being an excellent example that both Hannah and I know. We talked about the importance of repetition and rhythm, and of stories that we ask to be read to us over and over until we can join in, finishing sentences. A shared, secret knowledge about what comes next; saying these magic words together with the grown-up reading the story; getting there first and saying the words while the grown-up pauses expectantly. Then we started to talk about waste in stories. So many of our most important stories pre-date the kind of ubiquitous wasting of value and resources that comes with a combination of consumerism and plenty. The most powerful of folk tales and allegories work without being pinned to a particular time, but their roots are often pre-industrial and even medieval. Characters move through worlds of horses, farm animals, goblins, witches, princesses and princes, valleys, rivers, woods, farms, villages and cities. They don’t stumble across fly-tipped rubbish; waste barely figures, except in the form of wasted chances or wasted time.

Down in the village, the street-side trash-scape began to change. An empty vodka bottle; empty cigarette packets; the odd scrap of plastic. Clean, but now no cleaner than my trip round the Raploch and Torbrex in Stirling. Perhaps the influence of the authoritarian regime was less strong here, out of sight of the city’s centre. A child’s coat hung on a bollard, prompting us to return to a discussion we’ve been having for some time, about the borderline between loss and waste.

Waste or loss?

As we continued on towards Craigmillar, the street-side litter increased. More fag packets, plastic bags, more bottles.

A gin to start the day

I picked up a rather attractive empty gin bottle and carried it for quite some time, surprised to find there were no on-street recycling bins. We continued talking about stories. Perhaps what we need to do is create some new folk tales where waste has a central role? We don’t want to oversimplify and patronise, making waste a bogeyman and re-use a hero. And we don’t want to write stories that tell people what to do, that too explicitly say “Don’t drop litter” or “There’s plastic in the sea and it’s killing marine animals and it’s YOUR fault.” But there are more subtle ways to make wastefulness part of hubris, or to make reuse part of a heroic act. This is a theme we’ll revisit and explore more in a future post …

Eventually we came across a domestic recyclables blue box on a street; guiltily, I slipped my gin bottle into it.  Our conversation shifted to stories that engage older children and young adults. What are the most popular? Often series, where we can be with a character over and over again, such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, vampire series such as those by Poppy Z. Brite or the Buffy books, The Lord of the Rings, Discworld … but also powerful stand-alones such as To Kill a Mocking Bird, Catcher in the Rye, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Book Thief, pretty much anything by Neil Gaiman. In some of these, the heroes are people who stand up for a person or an ideal that deserves protecting; in others, the heroes a eccentric, marginalised, misunderstood. Heroes and villains are complex and the environments they move within are multi-layered, relating to our own social and physical world in both realistic and metaphoric ways. What are the qualities we will need to capture to tell powerful stories, worth listening to and re-telling, about waste and re-use? We began to imagine a sci-fi story, taking place in a far future. In this future’s past, some apocalyptic event wiped out most of the globe (a pandemic, perhaps …) and our 21st century time has been forgotten, history lost. As a new civilisations starts to build, people dig into the earth. In a certain spot, they find huge deposits of black, rubber rings. Nearby, they find concentrations of grey metal, coiled in thin strips like plant tendrils. A little further away, concentrations of copper, some in coils, some in rods and bars. And nearby, strange, unnatural stone. Will they develop an entirely new geology to explain these deposits?

Craigmillar itself saw us reach the peak of visible waste. Tidy, cared-for gardens were neighbours to abandoned sofas, uncollected bins and recycling boxes, and an almost obligatory mattress.

Fly-tipped waste in Craigmillar

This stark contrast felt like a caricature, too easy to put down to social deprivation or a lack of pride. Instead, we wondered whether it was simply a result of the different approach to waste management. In the city centre, Edinburgh’s citizens dispose of their waste in large, on-street bins that the Council emptied on a regular basis. In Craigmillar, residents have their own domestic waste bins and recycling boxes that are collected perhaps once a week. Does the use of on-street bins correlate with more frequent street cleaning? Is this less-touristy area of the city offered a poorer service as a result?



*When I talked about this with my partner at home, he pointed out that the Queen had been in Edinburgh a few days before. Perhaps everywhere within a mile of Holyrood Palace had been made spotless, cleaned for the Queen.

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