Michael Moynihan: Waste is a big challenge — we can't just bin personal responsibilities

There are plenty of hi-tech answers to the problem of waste, once the rubbish is disposed of
Michael Moynihan: Waste is a big challenge — we can't just bin personal responsibilities

In Cork, there are now de facto open-air meeting spots, al fresco festivals organising themselves spontaneously in locations as various as the Lough (above), Bell’s Field, Kennedy Quay, and elsewhere. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned one of the great blights of urban life here, the presence of dog waste in the city — paths and parks. Here, there, and everywhere.

On that note, my thanks to the reader who got in touch to tell me that New York was one of the very first places to introduce legislation tackling this problem back in the 70s. Legend has it that there was a big increase in deposits because in the crime-ridden city of the time, more and more people bought dogs — and bigger dogs — for security purposes.

Before the law was introduced in 1978, its opponents argued that enforcing the legislation would lead to confrontation — inadvisable in the era of Taxi Driver and Death Wish — and that it would lead to dogs being abandoned in their thousands.

They were wrong, however. People learned to moderate their behaviour. Call it a victory for personal responsibility, a concept that could do with a few more wins, frankly.

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that in Cork — as in other cities and towns — there are now de facto open-air meeting spots, al fresco festivals organising themselves spontaneously in locations as various as the Lough, Bell’s Field, Kennedy Quay, and elsewhere.

People appear as though by magic in the sunshine, drinking and chatting until the guards disperse them — with all the results you’d expect afterwards. Cans and bottles, glass and plastic, cups, and paper: Litter, in all its many forms.

Waste is a challenge to every city. Before that law was passed in New York, it was estimated that 500,000lbs of dog poo landed on the city’s streets. Per day. The collection and disposal of waste had people scratching their heads in the Forum of ancient Rome and puzzled the city fathers in the Athens of Pericles.

That isn’t an excuse, though. What about the notion of personal responsibility referred to above?

The complication with that notion is simple: We live in an age that views personal responsibility as previous generations saw phlogiston, or the four humours. A notion that once carried weight and was viewed as a reality by reputable observers, but which has since become discredited: a hangover from a former age, viewed with benign condescension.

For instance, people have decried the lack of rubbish bins in the city, identifying stretches of Cork where one can walk for quite a distance without once encountering a bin.

To which the only logical riposte is this: The absence of a bin is not an excuse to litter wherever you want. The former idea doesn't validate the latter. 

If someone can’t take responsibility for the amount of litter generated in a routine stroll through town, how are they going to survive the 21st century?

There’s another issue with ‘personal responsibility', one which applies specifically to the columnist. As soon as he or she starts to point out the need for people — particularly young people  — to take more personal responsibility for their actions or choices, then the columnist is immediately identified as a fellow traveller of Genghis Khan, or Norman Tebbit. And maybe slightly to the right of both.

The columnist is then in danger of being mistaken for a red-cheeked retired colonel in Tunbridge Wells, empurpled with rage at the latest decline in modern manners, dashing off a screed to his Tory outlet of choice, urging a return to flogging. Or mandatory two-year military service for all 18-20-year olds at least.

My canvas is confined for these purposes to Cork, but the country at large could do with a discussion on the limits of personal responsibility. Though judging by the waste left after the events mentioned earlier, maybe bare-minimum commitments rather than the outer limits need attention.

For instance, take the contradictions in the behaviour of those despoiling some of the most beautiful nooks and crannies in Cork last weekend.

By definition, many of these people are travelling beyond their own homes and immediate areas, so what are the mental contortions needed to justify acting like this?

‘Why yes, I’m from Cork, a place famous for a sense of pride in itself, that’s why I’m trying to make it look like a pigsty.’

‘Now that you mention it, I have a strong commitment to recycling and the fight against climate change, hence my wish to deposit as much rubbish as I can here.’

Optimists are pointing to the crowds congregating as evidence of a widespread desire for more public spaces in the city, but there’s an equally valid alternative view. As in, the people who are depositing rubbish in these spots couldn’t care less about those they share the city with.

Is that harsh? If you keep your ears open you’ll hear it said that you can’t expect anything else from people who have been cooped up for months, people who are desperate for human contact, sure I can’t blame them for doing something for God’s sake I’d do myself if I were in their shoes...

No. Not buying any of those excuses.

About the only encouraging side to this is that while numbers acting the fool in these areas look high, the vast majority of people don’t think it’s a great idea to squash together in a crowd to risk infection, and then top it all of by leaving as much evidence of their great night behind them as possible.

In other words, behaving like adults.

No need to shout, either, about litter being an issue all year round, not just during lockdown. I know there are plenty of hi-tech answers to the problem of waste, from the Finnish company placing sensors in bins to determine when and how to collect the rubbish, to another notion being considered by some cities — the introduction of GPS systems to track the movement of waste from bin to landfill, and beyond.

Those are great initiatives once the rubbish is in the bin. There’s not a lot that can be done if the rubbish doesn’t make it into the bin in the first place.

But what people may not realise is that there are places where the streets don’t need bins in the first place.

After the infamous Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, which left 12 people dead, the Japanese authorities sealed rubbish bins in train stations and other public spaces in the country as a security measure.

Then they removed most of the bins.

Yet Japan is outstandingly clean. Researchers point to strong cultural traditions in Japanese society, from community expectations of cleanliness to the habits inculcated in schoolchildren; these lead in turn to smokers carrying their own ashtrays and dog owners disposing of dog poo in their own toilets.

That’s Japanese culture, you may say — but as we saw in the example from New York, people can change their behaviour for the better.

People can take responsibility. If they choose to do so.

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