It’s a dirty job, cleaning up after the filthy Irish

‘How Ireland Cleans Up’ shows us the grey mountains of junk we don’t like to think about

How Ireland Cleans Up, a documentary from RTÉ, explores how Ireland deals with the waste it creates everyday. Video: RTÉ

 

One day not too long ago Robbie Andrews received a call from an unhappy woman who had accidentally thrown away her mobile phone. It must have arrived at the Poolbeg Incinerator, she determined, arriving with the rest of her black bin refuse to the gleaming, futuristic building by the Dublin coastline. She suggested that she ring it, and Andrews, the supervisor of the vast Waste-to-Energy facility, listen out for its location.

Perhaps she would have had a better understanding of the scale of this request if she had been able to watch One Day: How Ireland Cleans Up (RTÉ One, Monday, 9:35pm) which brings us inside the building – along with many other places, pungent and unfrequented, involved in the nation’s waste management industries.

“It would be like a needle in a haystack,” muses Andrews, imagining the phone trilling among 1,800 tonnes of waste incinerated there each day. Even that description seems overly sanitised when you see the grey mountains of junk climbing high in front of us. What a load of rubbish.

The request, however, exposes just how divorced most of us are from the consequence of our consumption; the massive gulf between what we discard, without much thought, and what others pick up with little grumble.

The second episode of this eye-opening documentary series includes an illuminating range of garbage, from one hotel’s wedding clean up, just before another arrives, to the field sweeps and spot checks of an outdoor music festival, to the vertiginous undertakings of a skyscraper’s window-cleaning crew. They’re dirty jobs, but someone’s got to do them.

That someone, however, gets to witness the filthier side of human behaviour, with casual disregard for the hygiene of their country and their planet.

“I don’t think people realise that there is this amount of human involvement in their rubbish,” says David Duff of Thornton’s Recycling Depot as workers sift through a conveyor belt of recycling for casually, or malignantly, discarded general waste.

His frustration is nothing compared to Michael Baynes, though, an environmental enforcement office in Wicklow, who pursues illegal dumpers despoiling Sally Gap and Glendalough.

Others who have seen the residue of misbehaviour are more philosophical about the Sisyphean task of cleaning up after it, like the cheery Cork refuse collector Jonathan Dennehy (“No point in being sad about it”), or the self-deprecating volunteers who describe themselves as Litter Mugs: “We pick up other people’s rubbish and we don’t get paid for it.”

That cleaning is a mostly selfless pursuit won’t come as much of a surprise, but it’s striking nonetheless to hear Fiona Dawson, cleaning supervisor of the Woodands Hotel in Adare, Co Limerick, who has seen the uglier side of revelry (“Nothing surprises me anymore!”) in which fake tan and make-up are the worst offenders, and still prides herself on invisibility.

“I think it’s important that people don’t notice what you do,” she says. “We’re there, but not seen.”

Yet they should be seen, just like the costly burdens caused by our thoughtlessness, and the nimble work of director Brian Hayes honours the sheer scale of an endeavour that is never finished.

Perhaps that won’t have a huge impact on our more slovenly behaviour. But, like a mobile phone pinging somewhere in the bowels of an industrial incinerator, it’s worth a shot.

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