SUCCESS STORIES:In the last in a series of Irish success stories, CARL O'BRIENmeets Emily Diebold, who set up a group of volunteers to keep her local beach clean. Now her model is being adopted in towns and villages around the country
IT WAS THE day after a scorching May bank holiday in 2009 and radio phone-in shows were crackling with anger. Rubbish was piling up on the country’s beaches. Food, disposable barbecues, beer cans and other day-trip detritus were scattered along otherwise scenic parts of the coast.
Local authority cuts to litter-collection services were just part of the story, callers said. Some fretted about a collapse of civic values or how the “dirty Irish” were increasingly out of step with their more civilised European neighbours.
“It was so, so bad,” says Emily Diebold, a mother of four, of Skerries beach in north Co Dublin. “There was litter everywhere. The council told us they didn’t have the resources to clean the beach itself, only the litter bins . . . But the beach here is the jewel in the crown of this town. It’s what attracts people to come here. People’s jobs depend on it. So, we had to do something.”
An impromptu clean-up helped to get rid of the mess in the short term, but something far better organised and more sustainable was needed to prevent the problem recurring.
So, how do you begin to encourage an entire community – families, schools, businesses, local authorities – to assist in regular clean-ups? The answer, the volunteers discovered, lay in giving the community a sense of responsibility for the area.
The Adopt-A-Beach concept was born. The idea is simple: the beach is divided into dozens of plots that are “owned” by volunteer families or groups. Each group cleans and maintains its plot for a year. Rubbish bags and cleaning implements are made available by local businesses, while the council picks up any bags of specially labelled rubbish left out for collection.
“People may not have a lot of time to give, so we needed something that was very flexible,” says Diebold. “So, people who are signed up clean whenever they can. If you’re going for a walk along a beach, then bring a bag with you. Get the kids involved. Make it a habit, not someone else’s problem. That was the idea.”
The initiative, which is the first of its kind in Ireland, has been a big success. As well as winning a number of awards, it is oversubscribed with volunteers and the beach is pristine, even after busy bank holiday weekends.
Other towns are now adopting the idea to encourage residents to keep their beaches, streets or roadways clean. The model is helping to strengthen community ties and point towards a new kind of model for volunteerism.
“I think in the current climate there’s a big shift towards communities doing things for themselves,” says Diebold. “We know we can’t wait around for public authorities to do it. This kind of thing happens in other countries, so why not here?”
DESPITE THE LONG tradition of Tidy Town competitions, Ireland continues to have a problem with litter.
A recent EU survey of Irish attitudes towards the environment found domestic litter was the greatest cause of individual complaint. A key part of the problem centres on who is responsible for collecting litter. “There’s still a sense that it’s very demeaning to pick up other people’s rubbish, or that it should always be someone else’s job,” says Diebold.
Joyce Moore-Forbes, a volunteer and long-standing litter collector from Skerries, agrees. “It’s very Irish to give out about what the council isn’t doing,” she says. “We often don’t stop to think about what we can do ourselves.”
That’s where schools come in. The organisers have been keen to work with all the area’s schools, as well as Sea Scouts and swimming clubs, to involve young people in clean-ups and change our mindset towards litter.
“If you get children into the habit of cleaning up, then they become more responsible and don’t always assume it’s someone else’s problem,” says Diebold.
“It’s also a nice thing to do as a family: go for a walk with the kids, collect some litter, and help improve the community at the same time.”
Sometimes, however, practical obstacles can hinder the most well-meaning of initiatives.
That bugbear, insurance, raised its head early on. The organisers were aware they could be liable for any harm that came to litter collectors, but the cost of taking out insurance would have been prohibitive.
A solution came in the form of An Taisce, the national trust for Ireland. Coastcare is an arm of the organisation that involves local people in caring for their coastal environment. By joining this wider group, organisers were able to avail of public liability insurance.
“We also encourage everyone to use gloves or litter pickers, and not to touch anything dangerous like syringes or other hazardous items. The last thing we want is for someone to come to harm,” says Diebold.
All sorts of unexpected items end up on Irish beaches, it turns out.
Socks and boxer shorts are always being left behind. The odd battered suitcase washes up on shore, as do fishing gloves, ropes and lobster pots. Quite a bit seems to come from the UK. Recently, three silver royal wedding balloons found their way onto the beach. It’s all in a day’s work for the beach guardians.
THE SUCCESS OF THE group owes much to the sense of community there is in Skerries. Voluntary groups are thriving with hundreds of people giving their time to everything from community centres, caring for older people and sports clubs. When two local fishermen were lost at sea last April, at least 6,000 people turned out as part of a “march of solidarity” in a town with a population of about 9,500.
So how would an Adopt-a-Beach group survive in an environment not blessed with such strong community ties? “At the end of the day, it only takes a few people to start something like this,” says Moore-Forbes. “The vast majority of people are proud of where they live and they want to improve it or maintain it.”
The Adopt-A-Beach organisers are convinced their model can easily be adapted in other communities, but they say a number of decisions early on contributed to its success.
“Involving the local authority was important,” says Diebold. “They provide us with bags, they remove litter and come out and help with bigger items of rubbish. An Taisce has been great in providing us with litter pickers and other items.”
Spreading awareness has also been key. Diebold edits a local monthly newspaper, the Skerries News, to keep the community abreast of developments, while social networking sites have also made the job a lot easier.
But perhaps the most important piece of advice they have for other groups is the most simple.
“Just get out there and do it,” she says. “Don’t wait around. Don’t wait for the council. Don’t think of all the obstacles. If you lead by example, then other people will follow.”
Read the series online at irishtimes.com/indepth/success-stories