login | contact us

The Last Straw RSS logo

Small Actions = Big Difference

David McCann   Wed 17 Apr 2019

Mrs Owens,Eco Coordinator from St Michael’s Primary School writes for The Last Straw about how her school achieved a massive reduction in Single Use Plastics

Our Eco-Committee at St Michael’s Primary School decided to tackle the amount and types of waste that were gathering in the school after carrying out an Environmental Review back in September 2017. One key area was of course plastics and we’ve made some big efforts to reduce our use as a school over the past year. To make sure we could recycle plastic properly we contacted Belfast City Council who gave us lots of helpful advice. Each classroom received a large bin for recycling plastics and pupils and teachers were asked to recycle everything they could.

In January 2018 the pupils on the Eco-Committee talked about the problem caused by plastic straws being used with the milk cartons every day in class. The office provided figures for the number of cartons of milk being consumed in each class and the figures were worked out for the whole school (each child using one plastic straw per carton of milk):

266 cartons per day x 5 days = 1330 per week = 5320 per month

A lot of plastic straws!!

Some research was carried out and compostable straws were sourced online and the school purchased thousands of them to stock up for the rest of the year. Since January 2018 NO plastic straws have been used in school. This reduced our plastic waste going to landfill! Also, one of our P5 Eco councillors suggested that as the straws we ordered were full size straws and our milk cartons are kiddy sized, we should cut the straws in half and get double the value. The whole school has taken this idea on board and it’s saving us more money….well done Ellie McDermott!”

Our caretaker also reported that banning plastic straws saved on plumber’s bills for clearing pipes under sinks blocked by plastic straws that had slipped down the plug hole!

What we did next...

Next… we tackled the lost property box. The plastic in our clothes can also lead to plastic microfibers getting into our oceans, so we need to think about the amount of clothes we buy and what we do with them once we’re finished with them. We had a very large lost property box of good quality school uniforms, which we didn’t want going to waste, better to reuse than throw out or buy new! The School Councillors got involved at this stage and sorted all of the clothing into items with names that could be returned to their owners to prevent buying more and clothing that could be washed and reused. We decided to organise a ‘Pop-up’ recycled uniform shop and put out a request to parents for contributions of uniform that they no longer needed. The response was amazing! Parents not only contributed items but also purchased items from the shop. We would like this to become a regular feature on the school calendar.

To encourage the whole school community to get involved our Eco-Committee came up with the idea of organising an Eco-week in early April 2019. This involved lots of emails to various organisations and people drawing up a full time-table of events to ensure that everybody could take part in Eco Week. An email was sent to all parents to make sure they were aware of the activities and to encourage them to support their children. One of our plastic initiatives is encouraging all the children to come to school with as little packaging as possible in their lunch boxes and NO single-use plastic water bottles are permitted.

We are delighted the whole school community got involved and will continue to reduce our use of plastics in our school!

Are you serious enough about littering?

Ian Humphreys   Mon 30 Jul 2018

There seems to be a growing disparity between those who care about where we live, and a minority of people that quite literally couldn't care less. The few whose littering is on daily display are a disgrace and an embarrassment. Visitors to our beautiful part of the world leave confused and bewildered. Such a welcoming friendly place, beautiful scenery, treated like a giant dustbin.

Do the litterers have no conscience? Do they not realise their own children will have to live with the after effects, with plastic in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat?

Dense accumulations of litter lying in our verges, floating down our rivers and washing up around our shores. This is what we now see and expect to see. It reflects on the whole of our society; that we have allowed this to happen. There is no benefit in blaming others, in shirking our personal responsibilities to help maintain the standards we expect. Can we challenge the environmental incivilities and anti-social behaviours we see? Do we have the courage (yes, safely) to ask someone to pick up their litter? Would we even support the council by reporting in incidents of littering – easily done when from vehicles – so that fines can be issued?

No other body invests more or employs the army of staff to remove our daily dump of litter, than Councils. Yet here too more can be done. The postcode lottery for fines must end; fines must be greater; staff shifts should match the times when offences are taking place (dog fouling particularly needs different patterns of working); and other government bodies need to take litter as seriously as Councils do.

Businesses have to accept not only that a proportion of the wrapping used to sell their confectionery, cigarettes or drinks is ending up as litter but also that they have a responsibility to tackle this issue too, in a way and on a scale not yet seen.

Pointing the finger of blame in a different direction is just an excuse not to do anything, which is an implicit acceptance of how things are now. This situation is unbearable for many people – to see our country being trashed by a thoughtless minority. If we really want it to change then the finger pointing has to stop and we all have to just start investing more time, money and effort in changing what we can within ourselves and our organisations, and into making the position on littering behaviour clear to all our stakeholders. No more excuses.

I heard a case of a triathlete being disqualified (given a ‘did not finish’ result) after being seen throwing his water bottle over a hedge. A rare case of taking this issue seriously enough. We probably already have disciplinary rules that prohibit the bringing of our organisations into disrepute. What if we explicitly brought in and communicated a statement that ties littering behaviour into such policies and procedures?

Just a thought.

Life on the verge

David McCann   Mon 16 Apr 2018

Noel McKee from the Whitehead Wombles writes for the Last Straw about "Life on the verge"

There seems to me to be a spectacular amount of effort put in to littering our country. How else can our roads, hedgerows, beaches and grass verges become so utterly filthy? Someone’s got to do it and yet no one seems to want to own up about their particular part in the degradation of our countryside. We no longer have verges by the roadside, just grass covered mounds of rubbish.

I started litter picking fourteen years ago around the streets and beaches of my home town of Whitehead in Co Antrim. It’s a beautiful place to live so I took upon myself to go out and litter pick. It grew from going around the town; to tackling the roads that lead into Whitehead, until eventually I was able to stretch as far as Kilroot, some four miles outside the town. I regularly lift around thirty bags of litter each month on that one stretch of road alone.

Our small group makes a difference but we know we are fighting a losing battle. For every piece of litter we lift, a thousand pieces are dropped. It has become so easy, and some would say acceptable, to throw litter from our cars. The vast majority of what I lift has come from this source. We don’t have to use any energy or thought when it comes to trashing the place where we live. With fast food containers playing a large part in litter blight it is important to get the message across that it’s a takeaway, not a throw away. Are we going to wake up to what we are doing?

It’s not one particular group that’s responsible, it’s everyone, from the rich executive throwing her coffee cup out of her very expensive car, to the child, carelessly dropping the sweet wrapper on the ground. I feel saddened when I pick up the remains of a Happy Meal or similar, with the toy still fully wrapped up in its plastic covering meaning either the child has thrown it out the window of the car or they have seen the so called grown up do it, leading them to believe that it’s the done thing.

Enforcement of fines has proved fruitless and is most definitely not working. Adverts and posters are pointless, ineffective and timid. It’s time for a proper hard hitting campaign of shaming our society into changing their mind set. The Blue Planet series shown on the BBC recently has at last got us talking about the inexcusable amount of waste created by us.

What a legacy to leave our children and grandchildren. A planet, millions of years in the making and we manage to pretty much destroy it in a hundred and fifty. Great work indeed, “Sorry kids made a bit of a hash of that.”

Where then do we begin to make the change so that we can learn to inhabit a cleaner, more environmentally friendly place? In my opinion it’s about getting into the schools and youth groups to educate our young people. I recently carried out a series of talks in our local primary school. I took two bags of litter, freshly picked from the roadside that morning to show them there was nothing clean or pleasant about litter.

They were able to see first -hand and up close the filthy reality of litter. A hard hitting, direct message that was well received and has resulted in three more families getting involved in keeping the town clean.

It’s also about adopting the Norwegian model of a deposit scheme for single use plastic bottles. All plastic bottles have a one Krona charged levied on them which can be reclaimed when they are deposited in a state of the art container. I’d be a rich man if this scheme were to come in here.

I would urge everyone from government bodies, charities and councils to break away from prehistoric thinking. Admit that what you are doing is not working and start listening to the people who are doing the work on the ground. Be more hard hitting, start working more effectively and efficiently and learn to collaborate with the people who know what they’re doing.

EU Ambassadors Approve New Waste Laws

Ian Humphreys   Tue 06 Mar 2018   updated: Thu 08 Mar 2018

In my previous blog, I highlighted that we were on the verge of taking a big step towards tackling litter. The new EU Waste Framework Directive contains some really interesting proposals that I will discuss below.

ELPA

It is five years since Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, alongside several other organisations, set up the European Litter Prevention Association (ELPA) in Brussels. It has been working hard ever since to convince officials that litter needed to be called out. Thankfully they have listened, helped no doubt by all the media coverage on plastic pollution.

All (currently) 28 member states have endorsed the provisional agreement proposed back in December 2017 under the Estonian Presidency. This establishes minimum requirements for all extended producer responsibility schemes with producers of products bearing responsibility for waste prevention measures and the prevention of littering.

A wider package of measures also begins to addresses transnational litter issues including marine litter, which we know from our own research is coming mostly (80%) from terrestrial origins and means we have to step over a disgraceful four items of litter for every metre we walk along our shores.

What’s it all about?

The EU parliament is expected to formally endorse the text of the new Directive next month, allowing Ministers to adopt it without debate and publish it in the EU Official Journal from where it will come into force. All we have to hope for then is that writers of the Great Repeal Act don’t forget to include it!

So what does the new Directive specifically have to say about litter? Distilled out of the full text by Eamonn Bates, Secretary General of ELPA, it looks like this:

  • It has been explicitly stated that tackling litter should be a shared effort between competent authorities, producers and consumers.

  • Dropping litter becomes an offence in all EU countries. Citizens who do not take their responsibility seriously will be breaking the law and subject to fines or other sanctions.

  • Member states must develop a national litter prevention strategy as an integral part of national waste management plans. In future, national plans will be required “to combat all forms of littering and clean-up all types of litter” (that could include, for example, tobacco waste, chewing gum, packaging, newspapers and magazines, paper personal hygiene products, and others).

  • Member states must identify the products that are the main sources of littering in the natural environment and take measures to reduce them. This can help address the marine litter problem.

  • Producers will be required to pay for public information and communication campaigns on prevention of littering. This is key as today’s on-the-go lifestyles increase the risk of products being dropped as litter.

  • A clear obligation has also been placed on Member States to change behaviour through continuous communication and education initiatives to raise awareness on the issues surrounding waste prevention and littering.

  • The Commission is charged with promoting information exchange between member states and the actors involved in producer responsibility schemes on best practices to ensure – among a range of other things – the prevention of littering.

  • Clarified to cover collected litter. By doing this the Commission and Parliament have clarified the share of responsibility for litter that falls to local authorities covers cleansing activities.

Final Thoughts

As a pedant, my only remaining concern lies in the use of English across the EU. In many places the Directive says that so and so ‘should’ do something. I would rest easier if it said ‘must’, which is what I believe it really means. But maybe I am too cynical?

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, and I am sure many others, will welcome this focus on litter prevention. With tangible passion and encouraging optimism the environmental sector will use these new legislative levers to the full. All we need to do now is get a lot smarter at communicating our critically important messages.

* I am told the word litter doesn’t translate well across the many EU languages. So in the original directive the word waste was allowed to mean waste and litter. Of course, in English, these can and are seen as different things and so it is no surprise litter fell completely off the radar. Oops!

The Last Straw - 5 Things You Never Knew About Litter

Cathy Gorman   Wed 24 Jan 2018   updated: Fri 02 Mar 2018

Welcome to our new blog on the disgusting, unsightly and costly habit of littering. In the first of the series CEO of environmental charity Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, Ian Humphreys, introduces the subject of litter. If litter gets your goat and you want to contribute contact Ian here.

Off our trolleys: litter removed from a small Belfast river by volunteers

Over the coming months this blog is going to dig into the issue of litter. How do we deal with the proliferation of single use plastics? What role do legislation, taxes and levies have to play? And where does responsibility for litter really lie? Whatever you think, society at last seems to be saying littering has to stop. We have reached the final straw. Image: Off our trolleys: litter removed from a small Belfast river by volunteers

To start though, we’re taking a lighter look at litter…

  1. Littering is as old as the hills
  2. Back in 2012, whilst completing a litter clean-up on Rathlin Island, I came across what must be one of the oldest pieces of litter in the world. It was identified as a 5,000 year old flint scraper tool used by our ancestors for cleaning animal skins. I guess that once it became too small or blunt to use it was chucked away. There’s not much call for flint scrapers these days but the 24/7 culture of eating and drinking on the go means the fight against this deadly scourge is increasingly challenging.

  3. Women started it all
  4. Yes they did, but I’m not talking about littering. Quite the opposite. The Women’s Institute started the clean-up movement that became Keep Britain Tidy in 1954. I imagine litter then consisted of glass bottles being left in the countryside by city dwellers, leading to fires on those rare summer days when focusing the sun’s rays could ignite a flame. So began the fight against what I guess we might term ‘modern littering’. In the year 2000 devolution led to the establishment of TIDY Northern Ireland, which rebranded as Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful in 2014.

  5. The origin of the word litter is…
  6. The word litter derives from the habit of throwing out old bedding (think cat litter or a litter for carrying someone on) onto the street, probably once there were too many bedbugs living in your old straw mattress or when a bumper wheat harvest meant a new one was on special offer. The word litter doesn’t translate too well across Europe and in some countries waste has to cover both what we think of as waste and litter. Thankfully, litter at last looks like being specifically included in the Waste Directive Amendments.

  7. You pay for other people littering
  8. Across Europe street cleaning costs are measured in billions. Here in Northern Ireland we spend over £45million a year or £55 per ratepayer, whether you litter or not. That’s £25 for every man woman and child (even if they are still in nappies). That’s unfair, I say. Not having to spend rates on cleaning up after people could allow us to protect precious greenspaces, parks and beaches, which are the envy of the world. A clean and pleasant land is much easier to entice visitors to and for businesses to invest in, because it reflects very clearly the intent of the population here around how we care for each other, for nature and for employers too.

  9. More plastic than fish in the sea
  10. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that by 2050 our oceans will contain more plastics (by weight) than fish. Now whether that’s true or just roughly true seems to me irrelevant. The fact is that plastic is turning up everywhere in increasing quantities, including – as micro-plastics - in our fish supper. That’s not on! It gets worse. These tiny pieces of plastic are sucking up toxic chemicals out of the seawater and loading them into the fish we eat. I feel sick just writing about it. Thankfully the EU is taking action: I hope we don’t jettison environmental standards in our rush to leave Europe.

    Round Up

    Despite the light-heartedness I’ve tried to show just how costly, negative and damaging litter is. The likes of Sky Ocean Rescue and BBC’s Blue Planet II have really ignited people’s passion and now it is time to not just stop littering but to fundamentally change the way society operates.