St Colman’s students helping Ireland clean up its act

It is heartening to learn that young people, encouraged by their mentors, are taking arms against the seas of litter despoiling Ireland, writes Damien Enright

St Colman’s students helping Ireland clean up its act

The students of St Colman’s Community College, Midleton recently removed over 12 tonnes of marine litter from the shores of east Cork, particularly Ballynamona Beach near Ballycotton and the wetland behind it. Their work in protecting local beaches and promoting environmental issues in their school and community has deservedly won them the Ocean Hero School of the Year Award 2015.

The litter problem on our lovely green isle grows worse every year. On the island from which I am sending this dispatch, La Gomera, in the Canaries, discarded litter is never seen. Ireland is the most litter-ridden nation in Europe. It is shameful and I say it with regret.

A Dutch holidaymaker here, seeing me scanning an Irish Examiner imported by a friend, asked if I was Irish. I was proud to say yes and to hear Ireland’s “unrivalled” beauty praised. But then, a man in the group said “But, of course, many Irish people are filthy.” The Dutch speak English well — and provocatively. I was provoked, but he and his wife went on to tell me about the litter that “decorates” the byroads among the “unrivalled” scenery where they holiday every summer.

When I pointed out that household waste was not collected free by local authorities, and unfortunately this engendered fly-tipping by a few individuals not prepared to pay private contractors or pay disposal fees at a public authority collection point, they laughed. A few individuals? What about the countless drinks cans, plastic bottles, burger boxes, baby’s nappies, paper coffee cups that litter the major roads? What is wrong with the Irish? they asked.

I ask the same question. Example: on a fast, straight stretch of an R road near my home in scenic West Cork someone regularly throws a large bag of domestic waste onto the road. It is hit by traffic and broken to smithereens, or ripped open by animals or birds and the contents scattered for a hundred metres. Not far away, a pretty, woodland glade above a stream has been used as a tip for years; it’s traditional for those who use it. There are discarded mattresses, fridges, toys, TVs, and fresh rubbish. One can find such dumps on byroads everywhere in Ireland. Our Dutch friends described them almost too graphically for words.

As an environmental writer, what did I have to say? I could reply only lamely. Local authority policies have targeted widespread fly-tipping and casual dumping. My readers complain that it desecrates our country, our birthright, our native habitat.

But we spend money on Wild Atlantic Ways, the Dutch tell me — and it is littered too! Meanwhile, we spend no money to clear up our own mess or to provide free public rubbish collection. There are no litter bins on footpaths, at beauty spots, beaches, playgrounds and public amenities. In the rare cases where they do exist, they are very far apart and often unemptied.

I explain they were either never installed or removed when local authorities imposed litter collection charges, in case the public, wanting to avoid charges, would use them for household waste. The answer was to allow as few as possible. But what about the citizen with a used pocket tissue, sweet wrapper or cigarette box, what is he to do, throw it on the pavement or over a garden wall?

And the large-scale waste? For the unscrupulous or the impoverished, the alternative to paying heftily for disposal is to heft it into the nearest ditch, drain, waste patch or layby.

I had to agree: unlike readers of the Outdoor Page, who clearly cherish outdoor Ireland, some of my countrymen are “filthy” in their habits, and shortsighted and local council policies encourage them.

In my youth, bigoted northern Europeans would say that the Spanish were “dirty”. True, in Spain in the early 1960s, drains smelled, mangy dogs and cats roamed the streets and litter abounded. But, they cleaned up their act.

Driving 50km across this island on its most-used road, I see not a single scrap of litter on the verge. Rural and municipal cleanliness, and abundance of litter bins, also applies on the mainland, with a population 10 times ours. The Spanish learned. What is the matter with us? Education, plus a change in government thinking is long overdue.

Meanwhile, well done, the students of St Colman’s! And well done An Taisce’s new initiatives, the Green Schools programme, Clean Coasts, 2 Minute Street Clean and the Ocean Awards among them.

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