I’ve become quite obsessed with rubbish. I don’t know whether it’s doing this MSc, following the Everyday Plastic campaign, the fact that ‘plastic pollution’ was a term on Alamy’s image wish list or just the general media groundswell of awareness for waste. Nonetheless, I’ve somehow started a series of little rubbish photography projects, one of which led me to discover the nineteenth-century landfill site near East Tilbury on the Thames estuary in Essex.
Last autumn there was a programme on iPlayer about landfill sites and what happens to our waste. It was a real eye-opener. They first went to a modern-day landfill site up in Scotland on the outskirts of Edinburgh and explained how these days pits are dug and lined with impenetrable rubber matting. They then proceeded to visit and dig up some historical landfill sites around the country.
The one that struck me most was a site at Tilbury on the Thames estuary which is now being eroded by the tide. It looked like a cliff face strata comprising old clothes, bits of electrical equipment and general detritus. It’s not the only historical landfill site at risk from erosion. An Environment Agency-funded study at Queen Mary University has identified over 1000 sites around the country.
I wanted to see this for myself, so one sunny February morning I hopped on the train to East Tilbury to see what I could find. Given that I didn’t exactly know where I was going, I decided to head to the point where the Thames bends and therefore (theoretically) most likely to be vulnerable to erosion.
Just outside the town I passed a functioning landfill site between the main road and the coast. There were Keep Out signs at the mouth of the entry roads and several laden trucks passing. I figured I was in the right vicinity but began to wonder if access would be some where between tricky and impossible.
I carried on to the village of East Tilbury with the idea that if I hit the coast, I could double back and wander along the shoreline towards the landfill site. Just before the fort, I found a footpath towards the sea. It took me through the flat, scrubby floodplain cris-crossed with footpaths and protected by a sizeable sea wall.
On the other side of the sea wall was a lip of concrete for walking along with a short drop on the other side on to the saltmarsh and mudflats. I headed vaguely north along here with my eyes peeled for old rubbish.
I walked for a while and didn’t see anything of much interest. Thankfully it was a glorious day and I got carried away photographing the creeks and water channels in the mudflats.
When I got to the spot I had guessed would be prime erosion site I discovered it will all plugged with concrete. Of course, erosion won’t go unprotected! Dammit, this means I’d not chosen the right direction at all.
I sat down on the side of the sea wall for a snack break and a rest and to think about what to do next. I looked back along the wall, towards the sun. There was a small beach just a little way back. I hadn’t spotted it earlier amongst the endless saltmarsh from the route I’d come. It was just a small patch of sand and the wet rocks were glinting in the sunlight. But wait: wet rocks? The tide’s way out and it hasn’t been raining. Those aren’t wet rocks. What if it’s glass, ceramic? I had to take a closer look.
I scrambled down from the sea wall and onto the mud. It was deceptively soft. I nearly lost my boot stuck down a hole and nearly lost the camera while trying not to lose the boot down the hole.
When I got to the beach I was not disappointed. What a treasure trove of broken bits of the past. It wasn’t quite the rubbish I thought I was looking for but it was far prettier.
There were fragments of ceramic tableware, shards of glass bottles of all hues and bits of those grey marmalade pots you often see sold for princely sums in vintage shops. Some of the glass had words moulded into it, cheaper and easier than labels? Another fragment looked like the TG Green mixing bowl I have at home and there were plates of so many patterns, shapes and designs.
I came away with so many questions: how long did it take to accumulate this amount of waste, what was the lifespan of these receptacles (were the owners of these items less clumsy than me when it comes to breakable items!)? Will scavengers in a hundred years time have the same feelings when they go through my rubbish? To that last question, I rather think not.
This discovery has certainly made me think even more about what I throw away – where it comes from and where it goes – and little by little my shopping decisions are changing and my waste is reducing.