Time to clean up our act

An Cailín Rua

EMBARASSMENT Ireland, somehow, has retained its ‘green’ image abroad, but the irrevocable truth is that this country is filthy, and we are the cause.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Spinning around the byroads of Mayo a couple of weeks ago before the end of the holidays, the wheels on the car weren’t the only ones turning. In my head, I was starting to get back into work mode, and tossing around possibilities for the year ahead. It has been quite the tumultuous time for the tourism industry, and while Omicron may have been raging at the time, my feeling was – and remains – that this year would signal a recovery for overseas travel into Ireland.
Much fervent bucket-listing was done during lockdown, and a pent-up demand suggests that lots of our US and UK diaspora will be visiting or revisiting the home sod. Many of those who have been planning this trip for a while will be doing so to seek out their roots, and to walk for the first time the green, green grass where their ancestors trod.
If my spin was anything to go by, they’re in for a shock.
They’ll have to pick their way through discarded burger wrappers, cigarette boxes, cans, bottles and the coffee cups that blight our grass verges and hedgerows, and they can be almost certain that among the ruins of their ancestral homes they’ll encounter at least one bag of domestic waste, a stray couch and a rusty old cooker.
Ireland, somehow, has retained its ‘green’ image abroad, but the irrevocable truth is that this country is filthy, and we are the cause. Litter levels on our city streets are at their highest in a decade, according to the Irish Business Against Litter survey. Our roadside verges are destroyed with rubbish. While there is daily outrage among the Irish public about how public money is used, local authorities spent a staggering €85 million on street cleaning and litter management in 2021. This would be the literal equivalent of throwing our own money into the bin, if so many of us didn’t have trouble finding one.
It’s hard fathom the mindset of someone that would roll down their car window and fling a coffee cup into the ditch, or would dump a bag of cans in a field instead of recycling them for free at the bottle bank.
What inspires ostensibly respectable, decent people to dump their manky old mattress in a forest, discard their filthy household waste in a public park or bring a picnic to the beach and leave their litter behind them? It’s despicable, it’s vile, and it speaks volumes about those who do it – but there are very few consequences. When is the last time you heard of anyone being fined for dropping litter on the street?
Just 1,300 people were prosecuted in Ireland for waste breaches in 2021. I would safely say you could achieve that figure in County Mayo in a week. But alongside the lax enforcement of environmental laws, there is an astonishing apathy to address the problem at government level, despite the Greens holding the relevant ministry.
It’s not hard to fathom how to address the low-hanging fruit. A reimbursement scheme for recyclables like cans and plastic bottles is an obvious one. Lidl is planning to introduce this in its supermarkets, and you can be sure they will implement it sooner than the Government will under the Waste Action Plan.
Looking outside Ireland, Sweden takes a novel approach to its waste management. Just under 1 percent of waste generated there goes to landfill, with 47 percent recycled. The remainder is incinerated at wincingly hot temperatures to produce energy to power homes and run public transport. It’s not the perfect solution; it does create emissions, but these are offset by the lack of methane emitted from landfill. Such imagination is not just lacking here, it’s non-existent.
For a country that is so blessed with breathtaking landscapes and attractive streetscapes, it’s remarkable that our national pride manifests itself so little when it comes to the basics like keeping our country clean. It reflects so poorly on us as a people.
Let’s hope that when our overseas visitors arrive, that they are suitably disgusted with our lack of public hygiene, and that they tell the rest of the world about it, because the embarrassment might be the only thing that prompts change.