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OU researcher calls for national approach to end rough sleeping in bins

Growing numbers of rough sleepers in the UK have given rise to people taking shelter in bins, which OU research finds is putting their lives in danger.

An Open University (OU) environmental researcher is urging waste producers, homelessness services and waste operators to help put a stop to this life-threatening practice.

Dr Toni Gladding, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Engineering at the OU

Dr Toni Gladding, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Engineering at the OU, today published a report, ‘Research into the issues associated with people sleeping in waste containers’, which assesses the scale of the problem, reviews industry practices in relation to people sleeping in bins and makes vital recommendations to address the issue.

The report, commissioned by waste management company Biffa, builds on an earlier study conducted in 2014 by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management.

Research reveals current state of rough sleepers

Dr Gladding, an expert in environmental waste management, and her colleague Dr Catherine Rolph, a Research Associate at the OU, surveyed operators in the waste sector to inform the report and subsequent recommendations.

The OU researchers found that although there have been improvements across the industry to prevent people sleeping in bins since the study in 2014, there are still many alarming statistics:

  • The UK homeless population has significantly increased in recent years, meaning more people are at risk (Data source: Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government 2019)
  • 35% of waste companies discovered people sleeping in bins within the last 12 months, compared to 21% in 2014
  • Only 40% of commercial bins in use are fitted with working locks, which is the same as in 2014 despite industry guidelines
  • People are discovered taking shelter in bins all year round – this is not just a winter problem
  • There have been seven known fatalities in the past five years from people sleeping in bins (Data source: Health & Safety Executive)

Dr Toni Gladding explains: “This new research shows that people sleeping in bins remains an issue of real concern, and there have been several fatalities in the past few years.

“Once people enter a bin to sleep the risk of harm is a real possibility. There needs to be a nationally agreed approach to this issue which will likely consist of a partnership between the customer who is the waste producer, homelessness services and the waste operator to help prevent these tragic incidences.”

Key findings

The findings demonstrate that there is a long way to go and a lot more to do to prevent people using bins as a place of refuge. A collaborative approach involving waste companies, waste producers – particularly those operating in town centres – homeless charities and the general public is crucial to save lives and prevent risk of serious injury. This new approach includes several key recommendations:

  • Training and written policies to be in place for employees working at waste management companies
  • Ensuring bins are secure and inaccessible, either fitted with locks or held in a locked area
  • Danger stickers on bins to suit a range of languages and reading abilities
  • Contacting homelessness charities when a homeless person is found near a bin
  • Processes to be in place at waste management businesses to report when people are discovered in bins

There is also a role for members of the public in helping to tackle this issue – the report recommends that anyone who sees evidence of a homeless person sleeping in a bin should contact a local homeless charity.

Michael Topham, Chief Executive of Biffa, comments:

“Urgent action is required now to raise awareness of the dangers of seeking shelter in bins. This new research highlights the need not only for the waste industry to take more responsibility for its own practices, but crucially for it to work with its customers to help tackle the issue. We are committed to leading this approach to promote policies and procedures for widespread adoption to prevent further tragedies. We hope this report highlights the issues that we all need to address and acts as a call to action.”

Petra Salva OBE, Director of Rough Sleeping, Criminal Justice and Migrant Services at St Mungo’s, who partook in the research, said:

“Rough sleeping is harmful and dangerous for the individual and for our communities. It is vital that Biffa takes the issue of people rough sleeping in bins seriously and is taking a lead in the industry to educate staff, raise awareness and change practice. We welcome the recommendations in this report and believe it will directly help to save lives. Going forward, we are committed to working together so that people in desperate situations can be found, helped and supported back into housing, good health and fulfilling lives.”

Trevor Nicoll, President, Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, said:

“Continuing to raise awareness and share good operational practice is essential to help prevent people sleeping in bins. As the professional body for the sector, we are very pleased to be involved as a partner with Biffa and The Open University in this useful research. We hope it is the start of further work to reduce the risks associated with people sleeping in bins and strengthen collaborative working with homeless charities.”

About Author

Bridgette is a Media Relations Manager at The Open University, working with the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. She has over 10 years’ experience in external and internal communications, working in the NHS, Civil Service, education, non-for-profit and the housing sector. She has a BA (Hons) in Media and Communications (Public Relations) from Birmingham City University. Bridgette enjoys cooking in her downtime and has recently taken up painting as a mindfulness exercise.

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