Environment

'I was fined £100 for dropping crisps': How a private firm is making millions from littering fines

When local councils outsource their litter policing to a private company, there's bound to be some knock-on effects

Tiny models of bin men cleaning up a giant cigarette butt

Image: Attila Lisinszky

From cigarette butts on pavements to polystyrene take-out boxes left on park benches, litter has become a common sight across the UK. With environmental issues an increasing focus, tidying up our cities needs to be a priority.

To encourage us all to clean up our acts, many councils have hired 3GS, an environmental enforcement agency. They give out fines – fixed penalty notices (FPN) – on behalf of the councils to people who have been caught littering or fly-tipping.

But they are a private company, often focusing on how best to make profits. 

For example, Manchester City Council employed them in 2017 and worked with them until the end of 2022. During this time, the council made 25% out of every FPN. The council used that money for “costs in overseeing the contract, including legal costs, and to fund other environmental improvements” according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request sent to the Manchester council.

There is no clarity as to where the other 75% received by 3GS went. When 3GS was approached, they passed the responsibility onto the councils and said that only in FOI requests to councils will this information be shared. However, the council refused to answer, saying the information is withheld on the basis that the information is “commercially sensitive”.

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Meanwhile, FPN for littering handed out to people across the country is different for every council. In Leeds, the range is between £80-£100. However, in Bath, the lowest FPN rate is £100, and the highest is £150. In Trafford and Waltham Forest, £150 is the lowest FPN rate for littering.

A 3GS officer, who asked to be anonymous, said that he has not been given any specific guidance for how much a fine should be, only an upper or lower boundary. He was told to use his own judgement to decide the rate of fine.

This has left many ordinary people annoyed by the inconsistency of FPNs and sparked frustration over the high cost of the fines.

People have also complained about the way that they have been approached by 3GS officers, who have been described by some as intimidating. On social media, people allege that they have been chased by officers, some tackled and threatened with being taken to a police station.

A 3GS spokesperson said: “Under section 88 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it is a criminal offence to refuse to give an authorised officer details when requested. If an individual refuses to give details, then the environmental enforcement officer may call the police so the details can be obtained that way.”

John Earle, a resident of Bath, encountered 3GS officials in 2021 while walking down a street carrying groceries. “I’d just left the store and was walking towards the bus with a shopping bag in one hand, and eating crisps from the other,” he said. “I finished my crisps and tried to put them in my shopping bag but at the same time walked into someone and I think the crisps fell.”

Earle hadn’t noticed he’d dropped the packet but was soon approached by someone who looked like security. They pulled him by his shoulder and said that he needed to pay £100. “They said they were a council employee, but never mentioned that they are from a private company,” he added. “They never even told me about the bag of crisps ’til I asked what this was for.” 

Earle said that he tried to apologise and explain that this was an honest mistake, but he was still instructed to pay £100.

Millicent Weaver, a 21-year-old student at the University of Manchester, believes that FPN officers fine young people unfairly. She was fined £75 for dropping a cigarette butt two years ago. But an older woman next to her did the same and was not fined. Weaver added: “I saw the same officer watching a woman smoking, this woman seemed to be dressed smartly and she was outside Nationwide Bank. Once this woman was coming to the end of her cigarette, the officer turned away, just as this woman dropped her cigarette butt on the floor.” 

Weaver said that she questioned the officer as to why she had to pay the fine but not the other lady. The officer in turn replied aggressively telling her to leave him alone, or he would report her to the police for being uncooperative.

She added: “It felt as though young people like myself are more of a target for fines like this.”

3GS has made a lot of money from fines. From 2017 to 2022, 3GS raked in £2,422,956 in Manchester alone. In nearly two years in Bradford, they made £126,380 through fines. These figures were only made available through FOI requests.

This year, Manchester ended its involvement with 3GS and moved to another company, WISE. Green Manchester councillor, Rob Nunney, said: “Public services are not there to make a profit, they should be brought in-house so that there isn’t a middleman making a profit out of it.” A similar sentiment was shared by Lib Dem Manchester leader, councillor John Leech, who said too little of the money raised through fines was helping Manchester become more environmentally friendly.

Brighton & Hove City Council also ended their relationship with the company in 2019. The council stated that their initial contract with 3GS “guaranteed cost neutrality” and promised “proportionate and compassionate enforcement action on the ground” while delivering the money from the fines to the council to help clean up the city by adding more bins and paying for cleaners. However, the job has since been moved in-house. 

While Manchester has cut ties with 3GS, its neighbouring borough in Greater Manchester, Trafford, has not. Trafford’s contract with 3GS is tighter and much more specific. They have a set boundary stating that a fine for littering will cost £150 and for fly-tipping will cost up to £50,000 and/or imprisonment.

However, Trafford has put in place regulations to help ordinary people report complaints if they feel that they have been unfairly fined. Residents like Max think that this is “the best thing that the Trafford Council has done” as it is rare to see this in other towns. 

In Brighton, for example, Nancy, who was a student back in 2018, claims that she had been handed a fine for dropping something even though she picked it up and put the litter in a bin before the 3GS officer approached her. “It was unfair to fine me then,” Nancy said. “I binned the thing I dropped. Yet I was fined £80 for it.” 

Eventually, Nancy took the matter to court and never had to pay the fine. But she still had to pay her own legal expenses. “I had no way to challenge the decision in any other way,” she adds.

To provide a solution to problems like these, Trafford Council states online that if fined you can approach Citizens Advice for guidance on the next steps. This is not a service mentioned by other city councils. 

However, on the same page, the council also warns that if the court does fine the person liable for littering, they may have to pay a higher fine, along with having a criminal record and a possible prison sentence. The page also states that the guilty individual may be asked to pay the court’s cost. 

Petitions asking councils to end their relationships with 3GS have received some support throughout the country. One of the petitioners, Shaun, has been making constant FOI requests to councils to show how unjust 3GS practices are to the general public. He said: “I think the idea is right. We should reduce litter in our cities, but the execution from 3GS is not the best.

“There is no need to intimidate us to pay fines or to make it hard to support ourselves if we feel we have been hard done by, by taking us to court and threatening us with a prison sentence. This needs to change.”

Shikhar Talwar is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme.

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