The more beautiful the part of Ireland, the filthier it is

Rosita Boland: What is it about us as a people that we seem incapable of putting rubbish in bins?

There I was, driving back into Dublin a few weeks ago, on one of those gorgeous hot days we had in July. There was some hold-up, so we were stuck in our cars on the Long Mile Road for several minutes. There were two men in the car in front of me. After a while, the man in the passenger seat opened his door. I wondered idly if they were swapping over as drivers.

That wasn’t why this man in the passenger seat had opened the door. This man had opened the door to carefully deposit on the road a giant drinks cup, and a brown paper bag from the world’s most famous fast-food diner. Then he closed the door again.

I now know what a red mist is. It descended on me unbidden as a cloud of rage, like being suddenly bombarded by a battalion of midges. I beeped my horn. Quite loudly. The driver looked back at me in his mirror, clearly puzzled. The giant paper cup tumbled over and began a slow, mesmerising, concentric roll on the road.

I got out of my car and marched over to the newly-deposited litter. I picked them both up. It being one of those sunny days, the car window of the man in the passenger seat was rolled down.


“I think these belong to you,” I said, and tossed them through the window. Your man in the passenger seat was staring up at me, his mouth agape. The man in the driver’s seat was roaring laughing.

Is it being too cheap to take the trailer to a designated recycling place?

What is it about us as a people that we seem genetically incapable of putting rubbish into bins? I’m not even talking about recycling, or sorting rubbish correctly into various bins. That’s radical, sophisticated stuff. This is simply about not deliberately dumping litter in public places.

I don't know what it is about unwanted mattresses and fridges, but I've seen very, very many of them dumped in bogland and ditches all over rural Ireland. Someone had to load up a great big mattress or unplug a fridge and haul them out to some class of trailer, because I don't know about you, but my car definitely would not hold even a single mattress. Then they drove those items to some local, fairly remote road, but not remote enough that I haven't seen them many times, and just turfed them into a field and drove off again.

Who does that? Why do they do it? Is it being too cheap to take the trailer to a designated recycling place, where you pay per car and trailer load to properly dispose of your unwanted household goods? I don’t know. You tell me. I just don’t get it.

Sometimes it seems to me that the more beautiful the location is in Ireland, the filthier it is. Take Ballybunion in Co Kerry. I was there recently, and walked it's famous Ladies Beach at various times of the day. First thing in the morning. In the afternoon. In the evening. The beach had a commendable number of giant bins, the size of oil-drums. It was impossible not to notice them.

And yet. No matter the time of day I walked on Ladies Beach, it was filthy. It was roasting, so I was initially walking in my bare feet. I encountered so many discarded cigarette butts in the sand I had to put my sandals on again. There was plastic everywhere. Bottles, straws, crisp wrappers, sweet wrappers. I even looked into some of the huge bins to check it wasn’t a case of them being full, so they couldn’t take any more. Nope. Most were half-empty. At 7am on the second morning I was there, I saw a team of council workers begin to clean the beach. By evening, it was littered again.

One can only conclude from it we're even filthier than we've been in over a decade

Why do we do this? Why do people vocally express such pride in their towns and villages and communities while simultaneously treating the streets, beaches, and green spaces of some of these places like public dumps? It confounds me.

In January of this year, the Irish Business Against Litter organisation found that litter levels had risen in 24 of the 37 towns and villages surveyed. These fell into five category statuses of cleanliness. Cleaner than European norms - 4. Close to European norms - 13. Moderately littered - 13. Littered - 5. Seriously littered - 2. Even the description of that category, “moderately littered” is deeply depressing; as if it’s somehow praiseworthy in its moderation, and definitely better than it’s near relation, “seriously littered”. This was the worst result of the survey in 13 years. One can only conclude from it we’re even filthier than we’ve been in over a decade.

Sometimes, I wonder what conversation went on in the car in front of me in the Long Mile Road last month, when the traffic hold-up dissipated and we all drove onwards, into the city. Did those men think what I did in returning their rubbish to them was funny? Embarrassing? Stupid? I don’t know. It’s more likely they didn’t think about it all, and simply chucked away their rubbish in the exact same way the next time.