Dumping on Dublin's beauty spots

Wed, Aug 27, 2008, 01:00

Some of Dublin's prime beauty spots are being ruined by rubbish, writes Amanda Phelan, as sneaky fly-tippers and careless individuals dump and litter to their hearts' content with flagrant disregard for the city's environment and appearance

FOR Marco Fussy, Dublin's litter problem is more than just an eyesore. The keen gardener regularly comes into physical contact with the flotsam of food wrappers, empty bottles, discarded coffee cups, plastic bags, condoms and old tyres dumped around his beloved Howth Head.

"It's like a minefield out there some days - it's hard to believe people take the trouble to drive up to one of the most beautiful places to open their boot and tip out their rubbish," says the 30-year-old Howth local.

Across the bay in Sandycove, it's a similar story. Swimmer Barry Devon says he's sick of people showing flagrant disrespect for their environment by chucking waste in the water or on pathways. And he has come to take littering personally - so, last week, when he saw a trio of attractive young women throw their chip packets on the pavement, he raced after them. The threesome were speechless when Devon presented them with their refuse.

"I told them they'd dropped something, but they thought I wanted to chat them up," says the 35-year-old from Sandymount who remains undeterred in his clean-up mission. "Well, I have to do something."

Reports this month that Dublin's litter problem is diminishing - with 69 per cent of the city described as having "a high level of cleanliness" - might come as a surprise to the swimmers, walkers and runners who frequent beauty spots such as Howth Head, Dublin Bay, Sandycove and the Liffey boardwalk.

HOWEVER, THERE have been improvements, and this is reflected in a survey released by the Dublin Anti-Litter Partnership, an independent group set up to monitor the rubbish problem.

While the city centre got a gold star, outer beauty spots such as the Howth seafront are often left trashed after a busy sunny Sunday, although council workers are brought in to clean up the mess.

At Claremont Strand in Howth last week, on a rare sunny summer's day, beachgoers left behind more than just their footprints in the sand.

Piles of plastic bottles and drink cans remained to be taken out with the tide, despite the bins placed less than 100m away.

This mess is repeated in the lanes around the local golf course and the walkway up from the Howth Dart station, where empty alcohol cans are an eyesore.

The waste can be more than just a nuisance - community groups are furious over illegal dumping of rubbish containing toxic materials. For example, deadly asbestos was discarded in recent months on Howth Head, a popular walking spot where new trails are being set up to attract tourists.

Improved access is good for the visitors, but it can mean more litter strewn around historic sites such as the 2,000-year-old circle of white quartzite stones adorning Shielmartin Hill, said to mark the burial place of Crimhthan Niadhnair, warrior king of Ireland.

The mess is a stark illustration of why, in visitor surveys, litter is the central complaint most frequently cited by international tourists.

The "dirty old town" image prompted the recent €1 million anti-litter billboard campaign: "If you behave like a piece of filth, that's how the world sees you". The tactic seems to be to insult us out of our apathy.

While the impact of this campaign is debatable, some councils - such as Fingal, north of Dublin city - are putting practical steps in place to tackle the trash trouble.

Large bins have been installed on Howth Pier to take visitors' rubbish, and several times a week a small white van roars around the lanes and walking tracks of Howth Head collecting the junk dumped by fly-tippers - the name given to people who dump garbage on the run or on the fly.

THE VARIETY OF material collected is astonishing: fridges, mattresses, car parts and bag after bag of lawn clippings and garden cuttings, reportedly dumped by gardening services unwilling to pay the tip fees.

Even cars are sometimes left abandoned on the hill's more remote areas. The situation is so bad that locals are now keen to prevent cars having access to parts of Howth Hill, says local Labour TD Tommy Broughan. "The presence of sheets of dumped asbestos at this environmentally fragile site is a new level of dangerous and disgraceful dumping at one of the most beautiful locations in Ireland," he says. "It must be stopped." George Cooke, of Green Hollows Quarries in Howth, says fly-tippers regularly drive up an isolated dirt road near his business late at night or early in the morning to dump their trash.

Cooke caught one dumper red-handed last year, and insisted the culprit clean up several big piles of rubbish. "But they're not mine," complained the dumper. "Maybe so - but you broke the golden rule," Cooke told him. "You got caught."

In fact, councils are reluctant to install rubbish bins in parks and out-of-the way spots because of fears they will be used by householders trying to avoid the €8 charge for collecting domestic rubbish.

"The bin charge does lead to people dumping their rubbish on the streets," says the chairman of Irish Business Against Litter (IBAL), Tom Cavanagh. "But that doesn't mean I'm opposed to the charge." He advocates better council clean-ups, stricter enforcement of the anti-litter laws and a kind of rubbish re-education - overcoming the attitude that it's okay just to throw junk on the streets.

IT'S EASIER TO control rubbish in built-up areas, such as village and town centres, where workers make regular patrols and bins are available. In central Dublin, efforts by 550 street cleaners have seen rubbish levels cut dramatically.

The assistant city manager with Dublin City Council, Matt Twomey, says the improvements were achieved with some effort. "We've been changing the times of our cleaning programmes, installing new bins, seeking co-operation, and where we have to, using our enforcement powers." IBAL's Tom Cavanagh calls for tougher enforcement. "It's very hard to catch a member of the public in the act," he says. "And we tend to have a diffident attitude to the way the law about litter is administered. We don't take the Litter Act seriously." For example, almost 50 per cent of on-the-spot litter fines imposed in the city last year went unpaid.

Cavanagh says it would be more effective to put the onus on commercial property owners - who are already legally responsible for the cleanliness of the area outside their business - to take responsibility, because they can't run away from the litter warden.

This approach is favoured in cities such as New York, where spotless sidewalks are a testament to the effectiveness of the Department of Sanitation's no-extra-charge, three-times-per-week garbage pick-ups and weekly recycling service, backed up by a ruthless attitude to messy streets.

COMMUNITY GROUPS say it's not rubbish to protect beauty spots such as Howth, with its wild humpback headland that's a longtime favourite of daytrippers, poets and writers including James Joyce - this was the spot where his heroine Molly Bloom received her proposal of marriage.

And singer Kate Bush used the headland as inspiration for the title track of her album Sensual World, with the lyrics saying: "Took six big wheels and rolled our bodies off of Howth Head and into the flesh." But it's doubtful the popular octave-punching songstress was reflecting on the discarded tyre wheels and rotting garbage that's now being dumped on the beauty spot.

Maybe someone needs to write a song about it.