Northern Ireland’s Littering Problem

The current government lockdown has given many of us the time to enjoy our beautiful landscape, talking walks in order to escape the inevitable cabin fever.

But while traipsing through the countryside, parks and scenic routes you have may have noticed what is an increasing problem across Northern Ireland- littering.

At any one time, there are 1.3 million bits of litter on Northern Irish streets; equal to 28 tonnes of rubbish [1]. The Litter Composition Report was funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) with the environmental group Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.

Litter can have a harmful impact on not only for feelings of wellbeing for us, but also for our wildlife. New research by the RSPB found that more than 8% of littered bottles and nearly 5% of cans contained the remains of some of our smallest and most rare native mammals. [2]

Furthermore, the economic cost is substantial. The annual sum paid by the taxpayer for clean-up is £45 million, funds that would find a much better use in our increasingly tight government budget.

Littering in Lockdown

With many of us at home, having little else to do, we have begun to spring clean. But this poses an issue when many local waste facilities are closed due to government restrictions. Councils across Northern Ireland have seen an increase in fly tipping, as people disregard their items with little thought of the consequences.

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have seen an increase in the number of complaints about this illegal dumping. Council chairwoman Siobhan Currie said “the recent spate of fly-tipping is both environmentally and socially unacceptable, as well as a public health risk”

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs have told citizens to “think twice” before cleaning out their homes, as our waste sector workers are already under increasing pressure. [8]

It is not just domestic waste which people seem to disregard, but also the vital PPE which is already in such short supply.

Anecdotal evidence from across social media suggest that many are simply littering their plastic gloves and masks. [7] Not only is this harmful to the environment, but it runs the risk of exposing others to the used product, and potentially the environment.

Of course, if you are not a medical worker the best thing you can do with PPE is donate it to the frontline workers who need it the most in the battle against coronavirus. A google or social media search will usually find doctors and nurses in your community facing severe shortages of the necessary protection.

If you do need these personal protections for medical reasons, their disposal is of great importance in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

For gloves, companies such as TerraCycle offer a recycling programme. For face masks, they should be removed from behind, wrapped in a tissue, and thrown out in a closed garbage bin.

Tackling the issue

The report also found that 1 in 3 people openly admit to littering, hardly surprising when we consider the volume of rubbish on our streets. But what can we do to change these behaviours?

The solution may not be simple, as the report found that little change to littering behaviour was observed in areas with public bins.

Environment Minister Edwin Poots said that after the findings of his report his department would be pursuing a “combined approach of legislation, education, awareness and enforcement.” [5] While this policy is welcomed, the government must acknowledge that the problem is structural.

Plastic Problem

The report also found that 71% of litter included plastic, with cigarette butts the most common piece of litter. [1] Plastics destined only for one use play a significant part. The report estimates that packaging items make up 47.8% of our litter- meaning 617,978 drinks cans, confectionery and crisp wrappers, plastic bottles, single use disposable cups and cigarette packaging.

The UK, especially the younger generation, are also Europe’s largest consumers of food and drink on the move. [2] The vast amount of take-out food is served in Styrofoam containers, eaten with plastic forks, and then disposed of thoughtfully by those who have grown up in a disposable society.

Everything that we consume is, often needlessly, covered in plastic and the waste produced by one use items is somewhat unavoidable. But that does not make it inevitable.

While metal straw brandishing teens may be the poster child for reusable, conscious consumption is something we can all take part in. Buying food in biodegradable packaging, buying your own coffee cup instead of using disposable, taking your rubbish home with you to recycle are all little ways to reduce the substantial litter on our streets.

Going a step further, why not take a litter picker with you on your next walk, and engage in the Scandinavian lifestyle trend of plogging? (picking up litter while jogging)

System Change

Of course, it is not up to the individual doing voluntary work to fill the holes in governmental funding. While marine litter has seen huge public attention in recent months, the same cannot be seen for in land rubbish.

The banning of plastic straws will unfortunately not be the easy solution the government may hope it is. Indeed, it may cause further problems, Jamie Szymkowiak, of Scottish disability rights organisation One in Five, argues that people with disabilities that cause impaired movement “find plastic straws an essential tool for independent living.” [3]

Now, before it is too late, is the time for system change.

Reference list

[1] Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful (2020). Litter Composition Report 2019/20. [online] Available at: https://www.keepnorthernirelandbeautiful.org/keepnorthernirelandbeautiful/documents/007888.pdf.

[2] Coward, R. (2018). Telling litterers to change is a waste of time. Here’s another solution | Ros Coward. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/29/litterers-wont-change-litter-zero-waste-national-strategy.

[3] Andersson, J. (2018). The plastic bag charge worked – so the government is doubling it. [online] inews.co.uk. Available at: https://inews.co.uk/news/the-plastic-bag-charge-worked-so-the-government-is-doubling-it-635223.

[4] Macauley, C. (2020). “1.3 million bits of litter” on NI streets. BBC News. [online] 27 Feb. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-51652505.

[5] Smith, R. (2020). New report reveals cost of litter in Northern Ireland each year. [online] belfastlive. Available at: https://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/belfast-news/new-report-reveals-cost-litter-17833710.

[6] Sitzer, C. (2020). Masks and Gloves Are Being Littered in the Wake of the Coronavirus Outbreak. [online] Green Matters. Available at: https://www.greenmatters.com/p/coronavirus-gloves-masks-littering.

[7] Weir, M. (2020). Fly-tipping on the rise as recycling centres close amid coronavirus lockdown in Northern Ireland. belfasttelegraph. [online] 8 Apr. Available at: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/fly-tipping-on-the-rise-as-recycling-centres-close-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-in-northern-ireland-39110764.html.

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