Litter - are we trying to solve the wrong problem?

Today, as we continue our five-part series on litter, we hear from TAD KIRAKOWSKI, Project Manager of Voice of Ireland Concern for the Environment, who says we need to look at litter differently
Litter - are we trying to solve the wrong problem?

Addressing the litter problem is about much more than bins, says Tad Kirakowski, VOICE, pictured right. Picture: Brian Lougheed

TO truly solve a litter crisis, we need to not only tackle the litter but address the problem at source — the waste we are creating. This may not be easy, but there are solutions.

Over the last year, as we’ve walked and run our 5ks, we’ve all seen the build-up of litter on the sides of roads, in ditches, and on our beaches. As we look to reopen with an outdoor summer, Cork County Council are calling for less public bins, not more, urging people to take personal responsibility. But the solution is not so simple as getting rid of bins.

Litter is an issue that needs to be examined from all sides; from where this waste is coming from, how do we value packaging, to how do we manage public bins and clean up efforts? So let’s talk about litter!

In 2018, VOICE conducted the first national survey of councils on litter and street cleaning in Ireland — it’s not cheap, costing about €1,400 per tonne to manage. Limerick County Council looked at street litter and clean ups in Ireland in 2018 found that 50% of the litter collected was packaging waste. That’s bottles, cans, and wrappers — they cover the stuff we buy every day, but few of us give much thought to the packaging they come in.

In many cases, these are valuable materials, such as hard plastic or aluminium cans, which can be easily recycled if collected in the right way. While street bins aren’t the be all and end all to litter management they are a crucial aspect. Ensuring we have bins where they are needed, and emptied before they overflow, is key to ensuring that people continue to use those bins, this requires active management and community engagement.

Picking on Pause

While many litter picking groups were unable to meet up to do their voluntary work, VOICE continued to run the ‘Picker-Pals’ programme with schools across Ireland, including 11 in Cork. Picker-Pals brings together environmental education with literacy and story telling for primary schools.

Through the lockdown, the programme has been a great success as a form of active learning which engages the student and their family while tackling litter in their area. We need to see particular support for these and other community groups as we begin to emerge from lockdown. But how can we address the creation of litter in the first place?

Buy the product, not the packaging: Ireland is currently considering a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles and cans. This would mean we pay a small deposit on a plastic bottle or drinks can, which can then be redeemed at machines across the country.

This approach has worked spectacularly in countries where it has been introduced; in Denmark, the introduction of a DRS saw collection rates greater than 92%. By placing even a small value on the item, we are encouraged to bring it back and have the bottle or can recycled effectively.

Research by RedC in November 2020 and found that 9 in 10 Irish people are in favour of a DRS system. VOICE are spearheading a campaign to ensure we get an effective DRS system in Ireland and are calling for communities and business owners across the country to add their voice to the call by signing up to the #ReturnForChange campaign.

The other option is refill or reuse bottles and containers. Many of us will remember leaving the empty bottles out for the milkman only to have them miraculously replaced with full ones in the morning. While not out the front door any more, increasingly shops across the country offering reuse options. In Cork retailers like Twig refill shop in Clonakilty or the Quay Coop in the city have been supporting customers to refill their own containers or offering discounts for returned bottles to be swapped for a new one filled with fresh juice or milk.

Retailers across Europe are joining in the #WeChooseReUse Campaign including those here in Ireland, calling for greater support and recognition of reuse options for packaging. And of course many of us have our reusable coffee mugs — where retailers are still offering the service, remember to use yours! The Conscious Cup Campaign has produced guidelines on safe use of reusable cups called Contactless Coffee.

Addressing the litter problem is about much more than bins, while we need to ensure the bins we do provide are clearly marked, signed and managed – particularly on busy days. We also need to support the communities, businesses and campaigns fighting back against litter. We can do our bit to prevent the creation of waste in the first place through supporting refill stores near you, or join the 9 out of 10 people in Ireland that support the introduction of a DRS here. The beaches and rivers will thank you for it! Further information on DRS : https://www.voiceireland.org/campaign/return-for-change-drs

Who are the worst litter louts in the world?

For three years running, Coca Cola, Nestlé and Pepsi have topped a global brand audit conducted by litter pickers across the world (here in Ireland, Lidl topped the poll in 2020 and 2018, with Pepsi sneaking in for 2019).

The waste bottles and packaging from these companies have been turning up at beaches, on road sides and in ditches across the world. To date we have massively undervalued the price of the management of this litter, but It’s an important message – we may be the ones who have to deal with the waste but the packaging is produced by companies who should be designing better. https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/globalbrandauditreport2020/

ABOUT VOICE

VOICE is a member-based Irish environmental charity that empowers individuals and local communities to take positive action to conserve our natural resources. VOICE advocates for the government and the corporate sector to adopt environmentally responsible behaviours, and for the development of strong national policies on waste and water issues.

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