Maggots and mayhem: behind the scenes of Britain's big bin crisis

Andy Gee doesn’t mind when people call him a bin man, but it depends on their tone. “If they say you’re just a bin man,” he says, sitting in the driver’s seat of his recycling lorry, as we wind through Torquay, Devon, at the tail end of the tourist season, “then it’s like, hang on a minute. I’m just a person getting rid of your rubbish! But to be described as a bin man – at the end of the day, I looked at bin men as bin men when I was a kid.”

On the pavements, overflowing boxes of recycling stand to attention, waiting for collections that have become less frequent in recent months. Gee is contracted to work a 40-hour week, but lately he has been clocking up 55 hours, with paid overtime. “I personally will do every hour I can to help people catch up,” he says. Today, Gee plans to finish his round and then pick up two weeks’ worth of uncollected recycling on someone else’s route.

The proper name for Gee’s job is a waste and recycling driver, and men like him (they are almost always men) are in short supply. The UK is in the grip of a nationwide rubbish collection crisis, triggered by a shortage of the HGV drivers necessary to operate recycling and refuse lorries. This month, it was reported that at least 18 councils have delayed bin collections due to a lack of drivers, with virtually all areas of the UK affected.

Across the country, effluence oozes from bloated sacks, rats rummage in recycling bins, and foxes enjoy nightly feasts of epicurean proportions. Meanwhile, council inboxes and Twitter feeds overflow with angry messages and unsightly images of uncollected rubbish. For the first time since the strikes of the winter of discontent in 1978, the public is starting to appreciate the essential work that bin men do – usually after a disturbing encounter with a particularly potent bin.

Keith Clark, a 27-year-old teaching assistant in Croydon, recently had one such encounter. He came home from work to find his front porch covered in what he initially thought was rice, but subsequently realised was hundreds of maggots swarming out of a food waste caddy that hadn’t been collected in a month. “It was disgusting,” Clark says. “It made me cringe. I couldn’t stop scratching myself.”

Meanwhile in Kirkby, Merseyside, Adam Brown, 35, who works in life sciences, stares out of the window at his general waste bin, which hasn’t been emptied for six weeks. Brown is a new father. “Can you imagine what a six-week-old bin full of used nappies smells like?” he says glumly. “It was 32C the other day.”

Tempers are fraying, too, on the hyperlocal app Nextdoor. “What are we paying council tax for?” one south London resident writes. “I’ll dump my refuse at the town hall!” In response to an overwhelming volume of complaints, local authorities plead for understanding, explaining that an unprecedented set of circumstances beyond their control is to blame for the mounting rubbish on our streets.

First, and most significant, is Brexit. EU HGV drivers are no longer able to obtain visas to work in the UK. The Road Haulage Association (RHA) estimates that nearly 20,000 European HGV drivers returned to EU countries in 2020.

Then there’s the pandemic, which has caused many HGV drivers to reassess their priorities. “Covid has made a lot of drivers think about their quality of life,” says Richard Burnett of the RHA. “How would you feel about starting a shift at 2am and driving for 12 hours, only to collapse, fall asleep and do it all over again the following day?” The average age of a HGV driver is 56, so many have taken early retirement to spend more time with their families.

Other, Covid-related challenges include the DVLA having been operating at limited capacity, due to staffing pressures, meaning fewer HGV licences have been issued. And the “pingdemic” knocked entire crews off the road for much of the summer, although such staffing shortages have abated recently.

To make matters worse, this year the government closed the IR35 tax loophole, which had allowed some HGV drivers to reduce their tax contributions. “Agency drivers withdrew their labour and said that if agencies weren’t prepared to pay the difference, they wouldn’t keep driving,” says Burnett.

As a result of all this, drivers find themselves in unprecedented demand and salaries have soared. Pre-Brexit and Covid, the average HGV driver would have earned about £35,000; now, Waitrose is reportedly offering £53,780 as a starting salary, while Gist, which supplies drivers for Tesco and M&S, is offering £56,674, plus a £5,000 bonus. Yet despite this largesse, bare shelves have become a routine sight at many supermarkets.

Local authorities are haemorrhaging drivers like never before, because they can’t afford to match these salaries. “What we’ve got at the minute is a perfect storm,” says Beth Whittaker, human resources officer at the outsourcing giant Veolia, which handles refuse for 7m households across the country. Veolia currently has 80 vacancies for HGV drivers.

But Burnett says problems in the sector have been brewing for years. Even pre-Covid and Brexit, the logistics industry had a shortage of 60,000 HGV drivers. Unions had been sounding the alarm about pay, conditions, hours and an ageing workforce. “This isn’t a new phenomenon,” he says. “It’s been going on for years now.” But no one was listening.

* * *

In Torquay, Gee is waging his own battle against the rubbish crisis. Eight of Torbay council’s 40 drivers have quit the service in recent months, tempted by the high salaries of the private sector. The service is so short-staffed, managers are having to go out on rounds, but can still run only 18 of their 22 weekly collections.

Without Gee, the service would be in even direr straits. He’s the best in the game – everyone says it. “I wish I could clone him,” says Ian Hartley, Torbay council’s head of waste and recycling. “He’s so efficient that he always finishes his rounds, comes back, empties his vehicle, gets in another vehicle, goes out and finishes someone else’s round.” Gee, who is 51 and lives locally, is ripe for promotion into the office as a supervisor. “But I worry about that,” Gee says. “Because then they won’t have me out here. If they had five of me this place would be a different story. I’m not just blowing my own trumpet.”

Refuse collectors work in three-man crews. Working with Gee today are two loaders, Nick Rushe, 30, and Jamie Haysham, 37. As the driver-loader, Gee is in charge.

He is a voluble and often hilarious presence, but so legendary is his fierce work ethic that some loaders dread being assigned to his crew. “I have got a name for myself,” says Gee. “I’ve had people in the office saying they won’t come out with me. If you don’t want to work, don’t come out with me, because I won’t carry anybody.” But even Gee is starting to slow down. “I’ve been at the top of my game now for 11 years,” he says. “No one can touch me on this. But I can’t keep this up. That’s my only worry. I’m nearly 52.”

Today, Gee is operating a 12-tonne Romaquip kerbside sorting vehicle, which he handles as nimbly as a Mini Cooper. On the outside of the lorry are compartments for food waste, mixed paper, small electricals and textiles, glass, plastics and cans, and cardboard. Once each compartment is full, a hydraulic ram lifts it into a compartment at the top of the vehicle, where it is compressed. The cardboard compartment always fills up the quickest – all those Amazon parcels. Because dry cardboard is a nightmare to compact, experienced bin men pray for rain, like farmers. “People think we don’t want to work in the rain,” Gee says. “But it’s actually better for us, because we can get rid of all of the card.”

I hop in beside Gee in the cab, which is immaculately clean and fresh-smelling. “It’s like a game of chess,” he says, reversing around a residential cul-de-sac. “You’re always having to assess whether it’s worth continuing to fill the lorry, because the fuller it is, the longer it takes to compact the recycling. Or, should you drive back to the yard, get rid of the card, and speed the round up?” Gee generally prefers to do a “tactical tip”, as he terms it, even if it adds more time to his rounds, because it means he can clear away more rubbish.

Morale, he says, is low. Gee and his crew work long, unsociable hours, in all weather conditions. Because it’s dark when he starts his shift in winter, Gee often can’t properly see what he’s doing and gets sprayed with rotting food and dog poo. “Sometimes,” he says, “the smell is that bad you think: how was that ever edible? Chicken is the worst. Chicken goes off and gets maggots very quickly. And gone-off milk cartons – you can never get rid of the smell.”

Gee works bank holidays, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. He gets holiday leave, but no sick pay above the statutory minimum. “I got food poisoning once,” he says. “It was bad; I was in hospital. The specialist said he thought I got it from doing this job. Splash of chicken juice – it’s that easy. It put me off work for two weeks. They paid me sick pay by accident, and took it back off me.”

Related: 'Plastic recycling is a myth': what really happens to your rubbish?

Then there’s the general public, who tend not to treat Gee with the respect a man of his experience and professionalism deserves. “The public frustrates me, with the fact that they don’t care,” he says. “We’re heroes to zeros in seconds. During the pandemic we were heroes, because we were out working, but as soon as they went back to work we were zeros again. Some of them look at you like you’re scum.” The older generation show greater respect. “They care more,” Gee says. “They’re the ones who sort their boxes meticulously for us.” (When people fail to sort their recycling, it can add hours to Gee’s round.)

He would be lying if he said he hasn’t considered leaving. “A guy just left here and he’s gone up to £44,000,” says Gee. “All he does is drive from Didcot to Exeter.” But for now, he plans to stay put. “If I was in a lorry driving up and down the motorway all day I’d be on my own,” he says. “At least I’ve got these two idiots to talk to.” Gee is paid £24,000 a year. “That’s quite a sad salary,” he says, turning to me with a frank, open smile. “Isn’t it?”

* * *

The great British public generally trouble their elected officials about one of only two things, says the Torbay councillor Steve Darling, from his office in an otherwise deserted town hall. “Bins and potholes.” Darling has the enervated air of a man with a heaving, angry inbox. “Most people have been incredibly understanding,” he says, with a tight smile. “But it’s wearing thin as time goes on.”

This month, Torbay, Teignbridge and North Devon councils wrote to the home secretary, asking her to allow EU HGV drivers back into the country for the two years it will take to train a new generation of British drivers. “We need that two-year visa waiver from Priti Patel,” says Darling, “so that we can take the pressure off the supermarkets. They’ll stop poaching our drivers, and people can start getting their bins collected more.”

So far, Patel has been unmoving, even as the UK chokes on its own filth. I ask Darling, who backed remain, whether it’s frustrating to receive so many irate emails from his constituents, given that 67% of Torbay voted to leave the European Union. Doesn’t he want to tell them to wake up and smell the bins? This is what they voted for. “It’s pointless rubbing people’s noses in it,” Darling responds evenly.

In an attempt to retain drivers, Torbay council recently put up their salary by 61p to £11.49 an hour, plus £60 for every full week worked. This has cost the council £200,000, but it is not enough. “If you look at the average cost of a HGV driver around here,” says Hartley, “it’s currently £15 an hour. If we put all of our drivers on £15 an hour, it would add half a million pounds to our budget. We just don’t have the money.” For every pound the council used to get from central government, he says, it now gets 15p, and every bit of extra money he throws at his drivers is less money to spend on schools or social care.

Related: Sewage island: how Britain came to spew its raw waste into the sea

But not all council refuse services are operated in-house by cash-strapped local authorities. Many are run by outsourcing giants such as Serco, which predicts profits of £200m this year, and Veolia, which had global revenue of £26bn in 2020.

Veolia is offering bonuses of £1,500, trying to encourage more women to enter the refuse industry, and has started an in-house training academy to secure recruits’ HGV licences, free of charge. Whittaker tells me that Veolia has also put up pay in some affected areas, but she won’t tell me by how much, and neither will Veolia tell me how much it pays its driver-loaders. (Looking online, average pay appears to be advertised at about £11.80 an hour.)

“It’s not just about salary,” Whittaker says, when I ask her why Veolia doesn’t just pay its drivers more.

* * *

At Torbay council’s recycling plant in Paignton, Gee unloads his day’s catch into an enormous blue contraption called the hopper, which rattles and shudders and makes a tremendous grinding noise. Seagulls line the approach like well-wishers at a royal visit. Hawks are sometimes brought in to scare them off, but they’re too expensive to have around full-time.

I watch as a rainfall of glass, plastics and cans is fed into the hopper and emerges in orderly bales, ready to be sold as recycling. “That is one lorry,” Hartley observes. “And we have 22 lorries coming back, twice a day, every day, for 52 weeks a year. We’re shockingly bad at consuming stuff. Quite often you’ll see food in there that’s still in the package. A whole bag of chips.”

As I watch the hopper’s maw crunch down on an endlessly replenishing banquet of refuse, I think to myself that humans are the maggots, really. We buy and we consume and we waste and we complain, while the bin men carry away our rubbish at the crack of dawn, quietly, for paltry wages. And it’s only now that they’re scarce that they may finally get the recognition they deserve.

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