Used nitrous oxide canisters are causing severe littering problems throughout the city, but a Liverpool litter-picking group has spotted an opportunity to tidy up and do some extra good by recycling the canisters to gain money for community projects.

The Penny Lane Wombles have collected a total of 652 nitrous oxide, otherwise known as ‘laughing gas’, canisters this year.

Members of the public and fellow litter pickers can drop the canisters off at Kate Sheldon’s front garden on Queen’s Drive, where she safely empties and de-valves them using a vice made by her son-in-law.

The nurse practitioner started litter picking in lockdown and has noticed the number of discarded canisters significantly increasing in parks, festival spots and open spaces.

She said: “At first, they were the little silver ones, a few years ago you would find so many.

“I work at the Liverpool Women’s Hospital and one day I walked around up Parliament street and picked up 48, but now the silver ones have disappeared. Now it’s the big canisters, they are everywhere.”

Kate also receives help from another Penny Lane Womble and a member of Litter Clear Volunteer to speed up the de-valving and recycling process.

The canisters are then dropped off at a nearby scrapyard and exchanged for money, which is reinvested back into the community to buy items such as paint, gardening tools, and litter-picking equipment.

Recycling tool for NOS canisters (Image by Zoe Hamilton)
Recycling tool for NOS canisters (Image by Zoe Hamilton)

Kate said: “I find the whole thing very worrying but we’re making a positive thing out of it, the money that we make goes back into the community.

“The next thing we are getting is a cordless lawnmower to fix what we call The Meadow at the top of Smithdown Road for the local families and children.

“We have to go every week to clear it, because it is private land the Council will not mow it.”

Anti-social behaviour causes littering issues

Yesterday the Independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs ruled that nitrous oxide should not be subjected to control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

This law would have made the sale of and possession of nitrous oxide for recreational use a criminal offence

At least half a million people use nitrous oxide every year, making it the second most popular recreational drug after cannabis.

Although the ACMD has recommended to not control the drug, they have made other recommendations to help reduce the links to anti-social behaviour and health issues.

They have suggested that the government considers giving the police more powers to intervene when they suspect nitrous oxide is about to be used for recreational purposes.

Liverpool City Council and Merseyside Police have partnered to address this issue however it is evident that there is a long process ahead.

Kate Sheldon said: “Honestly, I would rather it be us who pick them up. Richard, another member who works for the NHS IT department, drives around the city and visits Otterspool and brings me at least 50 a week.

“We have built a great network and we all know exactly where people leave them.

“I want the council to deal with the bins and the general litter which is a nightmare in our city. For example, from Allerton Road all the way down to Sefton Park there is not one single bin.”

Banning Nitrous oxide would be ‘largely disproportionate’

Professor of Substance Use for the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University, Harry Sumnall, agrees with the decision to not control the drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Professor Harry Sumnall (Image by Zoe Hamilton)
Professor Harry Sumnall (Image by Zoe Hamilton)

He said: “ I largely agree with the ACMD and their decision, banning under the Misuse of Drugs Act would be largely disproportionate.

“Although the scenes around hospitalisation and health risks being concerning, they are very rare, there is a really small number of deaths per year.

“I think the council could bring in littering laws and personal space and protection orders to help address the issue of anti-social behaviour.

“If you do control a substance under the misuse of drugs act, that can potentially lead to criminalisation which might have a bigger negative impact on people and the health and social harms of the drug itself.”

The full publication of ACMD’s review on nitrous oxide can be read here.

Knowsley Council in bid to crack down on anti-social behaviour


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