After a Welsh win in the 6 Nations this weekend, fans of both sides hit Cardiff city centre to celebrate. But after all the partying is done, someone has to clear up. We sent Joshua Smith out with the unsung heroes of the day, Cardiff’s city centre street cleaners…
HEAD out on to the streets of Cardiff at 5am on a Sunday morning and you’ll see a variety of things. As the last few people leave nightclubs to head home, or one straggler to the phone booth that would house him for the night, Cardiff’s street cleaners are just getting to work.
The tonnes of chip wrappers and kebab boxes left by hoards of rugby fans out to celebrate and commiserate after Wales beat Ireland in the 6 Nations on Saturday don’t clean themselves away.
“It’s always worse when the Irish come to play,” Ben Johnson, a 27-year-old cleaning operative from Penarth tells me.
I’d gone with Ben and other members of the street cleaning team to see how much work goes in to clearing up after a rugby fuelled, alcohol induced night on the town.
“They’re a messy bunch this welsh lot,” adds his team coordinator Doug Hancock, 50 of Emblem Close, Ely, with a smile. He’s been working for the council and cleaning the streets of Cardiff for 15 years.
It was difficult to argue. Walking down Caroline Street, I was ankle deep in the chip papers and kebab boxes which were filling the street.The grease from so many leftovers made walking challenging enough for me, sober and non-stilettoed – there will have been a few sore ankles in Cardiff on Sunday.
Doug was team leader, going through the city centre and emptying bins with Rob Eaves, a 26-year-old cleaning operative from New Tredegar.
“We’ll have a big Linktip go around the outskirts emptying the big bins while we go through all the ones in the city centre,” Doug said. “We’ll have a team of 22 people in all working this morning, cleaning anything from 7 to 10 tonnes of rubbish.
“There are two small mechs out, they’re the ones that suck up all the excess rubbish on the floor, then once we’ve cleaned all the rubbish Rob will take a scrubber vehicle down and get all the grease off the floor as well.”
As Doug talks, seagulls circle overhead, coming down only if there are no machines near a potentially lucrative pile of discarded leftovers for them to scavenge through. It takes several trips to make any headway, as Doug and Rob fill the trucks they drag behind them, carrying up to a quarter of a tonne each before heading back to the depot centre on Tredegar Street to empty them in to the back of a bin lorry.
Caroline Street is a state. Four cleaners go down emptying bins, a truck-mounted sweeper goes up and down, sucking up as much of the litter on the floor it can manage and a big Linktip comes to empty special bins put out for large events.
“The yellow bins don’t normally get full but the rubbish is over the top of them today,” Doug says. “We’ve got a few of these out, there’s a few down here and outside McDonalds as well.”
It’s a mammoth effort. After going back and forth four or five times, they made it as far as St Mary Street. They go down, unlocking every public bin they come pass and emptying it, they pick up litter, refuse bags and make sure all of the larger bins are somewhere that is easy for the Linktip truck to pick up.
It’s physical work, and despite it being 6.30am and near freezing, Doug is working up such a sweat he removes his jacket. He’s left in just a T-shirt and high visibility vest. As they’re emptying another bin, Rob picks up a purse.
“We find a lot of things like this, someone will have been on a night out last night and been pickpocketed and then whoever did it will have just thrown it in the bin there after taking all the money out,” Rob says. Doug goes through the purse to try and find any hint of a clue as to who the owner of the purse is, but the thing is entirely empty.
“They’ve taken everything,” he says, “all we can do is hand this in at head office and see if anyone claims it. We used to find many mobile phones and wallets but nowadays groups of people come looking to try and find whatever they can in the bins. I guess it’s just people who are really desperate.”
The sun is starting to rise, and after two hours at work, The Hayes, Caroline Street and St Mary Street are starting to look respectable again. As light shines on what was the night before, the streets start to come back to life.
While they are working through the piles of rubbish on St Mary Street, a woman approaches Doug and Rob. She is Judith Grima, 58, from Birchgrove Road, and is a friend of Doug’s. They met while he was out cleaning one day.
“These guys are simply the best!” says Judith, “they do a very important job. “People think they do not pick up rubbish and are useless but they do a great job. Look at all the hard work they’ve done today!”
“You do meet some real characters out and about.” Rob tells me, “I try to speak to people where possible. It does make a big difference, makes the job that little bit more worthwhile.”
Some time later and Cardiff is near spotless. As most of the city slept, Doug and his team transformed it from a dystopian wasteland into something more befitting of the Welsh capital. As we head back to the depot for the last time, my watch tells me we’ve been out for more than five hours. Doug won’t finish his shift for another eight.
Rob fires up the street cleaner to go and wash the grease from the street floors and drives off, his energy and enthusiasm belying the fact he’s been up since 3.15am to ensure his job is done.
“People don’t realise what we do. We work hard and do take pride in what we do despite what people may think.
“A lot of us enjoy working for the council here, I just wish we were appreciated a little more.”