ON a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of friends were slowly gathering on Cork city’s newest landmark, the Mary Elmes Bridge, with brooms and dustpans.
Under the curious watch of passers-by and people-watchers sitting on the bridge’s benches with their children, the group started cleaning.
Their aim is to tackle what they believe is a major litter problem on the city’s new €5 million crossing over the Lee.
Jason J. Fisher, an American Cork resident, who organises the weekly clean-up meetings, crosses the new bridge on his way to work every day, and noticed the accumulation of rubbish, especially around its seats.
“I’m not a city planner, but you could maybe put, like, trash cans or rubbish bins on each end of the bridge,” he said.
“And then maybe just some nice signs telling people not to litter.”
Linking Merchant’s Quay to St Patrick’s Quay, Mary Elmes Bridge, named after a Cork-born aid worker who is credited with saving 200 Jewish children from death during the Holocaust, became the city’s 31st bridge crossing the Lee in May. It will be officially unveiled at a ceremony attended by some of Mary’s relatives later this month.
Jason says that many people sit on the decking benches to have a smoke, causing water pollution as their cigarette ends escape through the bridge’s grids, falling into the water below.
When he starts sweeping numerous cigarette ends from under the benches, it is obvious he has a point.
According to recent data released by Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based environmental advocacy organisation, cigarette butts are the most common plastic products washed ashore.
They are not biodegradable, and their plastic filter can easily find its way into the sea, where it releases toxic chemicals such as arsenic, nicotine, lead, benzene and cadmium.
According to researchers, a single cigarette butt contains enough toxins to kill half the minnows — small freshwater fish — in a litre of water in less than 96 hours.
As more places have prohibited smoking in their premises in recent years, more people have begun smoking outdoors.
Research reveals that even cigarette ends disposed of on sidewalks can still end up in oceans, as the wind readily displaces the little pieces of litter.
In Ireland, the Litter Act imposes a €150 fine on any littering, including discarding cigarette ends in the environment.
Maria Bel, a Spanish Cork resident who had brought her Portuguese boyfriend Diogo Monteiro to the clean-up on the Sunday I attended, said: “I just think it’s a pity that it is a very new bridge. It opened, like, two months ago, and litter is already everywhere on the whole bridge.
“It’s such a pity because a lot of people actually enjoy to be here.”
Diogo, who is wearing yellow rubber gloves to protect his hands while picking up rubbish, called on the City Council to install bins or ashtrays on the bridge.
“It would be nice if the Council could put bins on the bridge, even though we don’t know it’s going to work or not, but it’s better to have them anyway.
“I think, when planning a bridge, you should take these things into account.
“The Council have to know that a good percentage of population smokes, so if you’re going to have benches, it’s normal that many people might sit down and smoke.”
Diogo is mostly concerned about the Lee, and the damage the littering problem may inflict on the river.
“The wind is also causing the trash to fall into the water,” he says.
During the clean-up, Diogo, Jason and Maria discussed a way to pick up cigarette ends that were stuck between the grids without causing them to fall into the river.
Jason suggests they should use a credit card to pull up the small rubbish, the idea worked, and Jason’s face lit up.
Green Party Councillor Dan Boyle says he plans on raising the issue of litter on the new bridge in upcoming Council meetings.
He says he is mainly determined to question the Council on their decision not to install rubbish bins on a bridge that is equipped with benches.
“I suspect it has been a decision made for aesthetic reasons, as bins don’t usually add much to the visual aspect of construction,” he reasons.
The councillor, who is also a regular volunteer at the clean-up sessions, believes that the idea of a weekly clean-up effort is a “civic-minded approach” that might prompt the Council into action.
“I really don’t want (the citizen clean-up) to be a substitute for action by Cork City Council, but I think it has a high value in that it shows the Council that this problem exists,” he says.
Pointing out that the issue of cigarette end pollution is not limited to Mary Elmes Bridge, Cllr Boyle said: “We can’t ignore the fact that many people still smoke, even though it is not a healthy activity.
“So, we need to provide the infrastructure (to curtail pollution),” he added.
Jason, who is also a rap musician, thinks his eco-activism initiative, will finally pay off.
“I think if we kept the area consistently clean, hopefully, people start to notice and stop polluting,” he said.
To join up and volunteer with the Mary Elmes Bridge clean-up group, see https://www.facebook.com/groups/2197109020580923/.