Illegal dumping: Rural towns battle rising tide of rubbish

Household waste, electrical goods, mattresses and bags among items dumped

Carmel O'Brien lives in the village of Kilmaley, about 10km west of Ennis in Co Clare.

It is an area of pleasant, rolling countryside, blanketed with fields and woods, and sandwiched between the Inch river and the main road linking Ennis and Miltown Malbay.

Carmel likes where she lives and likes walking the quiet roads with her friends. She’s involved in her parish through a meitheal group which has perhaps 15 committed local activists ranging in ages from Carmel’s own mid-60s to younger, new parents in their 30s.

“It’s really just to make the parish a very nice community to live in,” she explained. “Our whole aim is to get people living in the community again.”


In April, they spent two days picking up rubbish on either side of a 1.5 kilometre road nearby. They filled an extraordinary 180 to 200 green plastic bags.

“You’d be amazed how much you get in just an hour,” she explained in a telephone interview this week, conducted while she was on one of her cherished walks. And, as she chatted, she came upon more dumping.

“I’m walking now,” she said, “and I can see a huge area of dumping: Easter egg packaging, boxes, a black bag. It’s obviously thrown out of a car and burst open.”

She identified two types of littering that affect small rural towns and villages, and the countryside surrounding them.

Domestic refuse

The first is casual, thoughtless littering, often associated with the environs around shops and takeaways. The second is larger-scale dumping of household waste, and larger items such as redundant electrical goods, mattresses, small items of furniture – but, most of all, black bags filled with domestic refuse.

"Off the main roads, on the smaller roads and lanes, you don't get much litter, " says Carmel. "You get dumping."

Sometimes it is smaller bags of waste flung out of car windows; other times its several black plastic bags, clearly driven to a secluded location, usually a country lane, emptied out of a boot and flung into a ditch.

“We thought it had gotten a lot better where we are, maybe because of our persistence,” said Carmel. “But in the past couple of months, it has started again. It’s unbelievable. What the answer is I don’t know. They say if you had free landfill it would be better, but I don’t know.”

What Carmel and her friends have experienced in Kilmaley is repeated in every county across the country, and in every city, town, village and parish, in ditches, woods, and bogs.

Earlier this year, The Irish Times launched its Report Illegal Dumping (RID) campaign. Since then, it has provoked a steady stream of information from readers, accompanied by photographs, of what is happening in their areas.


Maria noticed cardboard boxes and plastic strewn about the pier at Malin Head in Donegal, apparently the detritus of local fishing. Clare found dumped household refuse in plastic bags on a traffic island in Ash Street, Dublin 8.

Alan found a pile of plastic cartons, most seeming to have once held fruit and vegetables, flung over a wall into a Coillte forest walk area in Newtownmountkennedy in Co Wicklow. Susan found what looks like a partly burnt mound of household waste, including black plastic bags and other items, at the canal end of Hayden's Lane in Lucan, Co Dublin.

From Carrick-on-Suir, Margaret send in three photos of plastic office chairs, bubble wrap, bottles, timber, metal and clothes illegally dumped at The Rookery Lane just off Sean Kelly Square.

And on Thursday, a reader in Donegal sent in evidence of extraordinary dumping last year near Manor Cunningham outside Letterkenny. The single item dumped was the circular drum from a cement mix lorry, apparently damaged in a collision, but removed from the site of the crash, detached from its lorry and then dropped by a crane at the side of a road, where it remains, filled with rock-solid cement.

While the dumped cement mixer is exceptional, the determination of a minority of people to dispose of their household waste illegally is not.

For Clare County Council, "2016 was horrendous" and while instances have decreased somewhat, "we still have a huge number of complaints every week," said a spokesman.

It is to this local authority that Carmel O’Brien turns for help when she and her friends find dumping of a scale beyond their resources to cope. The council has four municipal districts, each with a litter warden.

When calls come in, data is recorded (name and number of person reporting, details of what was dumped and where) and a warden dispatched.

“The community warden will go out and, if the waste is accessible and under six bags, will take it all away,” said the spokesman. “More than that, he or she will have to call an engineer for help, and a lorry and removal team will be sent out.”

Transfer stations

Clare has had no landfill within the county since 2011 and so gathered refuse is taken to one of three transfer stations where waste can be separated for recycling or baling and onward transfer to landfills elsewhere – in Clare’s case to Co Limerick.

Illegally disposed-of rubbish will be examined for evidence that can lead to identifying the dumper.

“We hope to get eircom bills, or electricity bills, credit card receipts or something with a PPS number on it,” said the spokesman. “With this, we can identify a house for follow-up queries and fines if necessary.”

Two major issues in Clare are illegally dumped green waste and dog fouling.

“Last year, it cost us over €30,000 to remove green waste from just one location, a communal area that had been dealt with 12 years ago but had been used since and the problem had built up,” said the spokesman. “When people see green waste – grass cuttings, hedge trimmings and such – they see a stack where they can hide their other waste.”

Dog fouling in Lahinch, to take one example, is a particular problem. If a lone dog is seen fouling, it can be hard to trace the owner. "We're now considering sending dog wardens out with litter wardens."

If they see a dog whom they believe has fouled, they’ll capture the animal and, if an owner appears, they won’t give them their dog back until they pay the fine for dog fouling. If the owner doesn’t emerge, they may remove the dog to a pound and wait for it to be claimed – at which point the owner can be fined.

Dublin, with the largest concentration of people in the State, has the largest illegal dumping and littering problem to manage. Each year, despite no longer having any direct involvement in domestic bin collecting, the council disposes of 17,500 tons of refuse.

Litter bins

It comes from street sweeping, emptying public litter bins – and removing illegally dumped waste. The problem has been increasing, according to Simon Brock, an administrative officer in the waste management department of Dublin City Council.

“It’s a problem we are constantly trying to tackle,” he says. “It is a problem we are constantly responding to, and that we try to respond to as quickly as possible because we understand the damage that it does to the appearance of the city.”

He believes there are neither simple reasons nor easy solutions to the problem.

“There are multiple factors,” he says. “It can be a complex enough problem, which is not to say that people shouldn’t be compliant, but there’s irresponsibility, there’s increases in population and increases in transience in the population, there’s changes in the market. There may also be socio-economic factors at play.”

But ultimately, he says, people have multiple solutions: bottle banks, bring centres, and reducing through recycling the amount of waste that has to be paid to get rid of.

“It is a small percentage of the population overall who are creating this problem,” says Brock.

Last year the council had 12,000 complaints, the great bulk (over 60 per cent) of them relating to illegal dumping. Their response is to clean up the mess as quickly as possible, investigate and fine where possible – €150 fixed penalty for most littering and small-scale dumping, and court action, with the prospect of fines of up to €4,000, for more serious, large-scale dumping.

Collection charges

Neither he nor other local government officials interviewed believe people dump household waste mainly to evade collection charges. Brock puts it down to “irresponsibility and ignorance of the effects that it has”.

“There’s an inability to see that these actions have a larger effect. That larger effect is the impact on the city, it’s the impact on the enjoyment of the city for the people who live there, for these people’s neighbours, for visitors, for the economy of the city.”

And the solution that works best, in his estimation, is engagement with communities.

“Trying to inform people and trying to make them aware of the facilities that are available, of the methods by which they can reduce their costs, of the options that are open to them and, failing that, the penalties that could be imposed on them.”

He cites a mix of rapid-reaction clean-ups, enforcement, targeted campaigns, education and community engagement programmes as the best way of getting sustained improvements.

“What it takes is a community that is interested and engaged,” says Brock, “and us to give the appropriate responses and supports at the right time.”

Meanwhile, down secluded country roads, the dumpers will carry on until caught. The spokesman for Clare County Council reckons there’s a bog near Kilrush, an area of commonage that will take a lot to clean up.

“This week,” he said, “one of our wardens reckoned that it would take five or six JCBs, filling four county council trucks a day for two to three weeks, to clear the bog of illegally dumped waste.”

Illegal dumping? Report it here.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times