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How much litter?

People have been dumping litter since there were people. Archaeologists digging in prehistoric sites have found piles of discarded shells, bones and skins that they call 'midden mounds'. In the present day we dump crisp packets, soft drink cans and fast food boxes. While councils and volunteers collect much of this litter, a lot is left in grass verges, stuck in hedges or under fences and in other hard to reach places where it can accumulate and look bad, or get washed out and end up blocking drains. Much of it gets blown or washed into streams and rivers and then out into the sea.

Without knowing how much litter enters the wider environment we can't make any plans to clean it up. Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful carries out two types of survey on litter: we survey terrestrial litter by checking on over a thousand places per year across the country, and we survey marine litter by counting how much washes up on 14 reference beaches four times per year. The most recent results we have are below.

Litter on streets and in parks

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful carries out an annual survey of 2080 places in Northern Ireland for litter. Download the full 2014 NI litter survey report.

The Northern Ireland Litter Survey 2014 was a comprehensive litter survey of the state of Northern Ireland's streets and public areas in Northern Ireland: it examined litter levels in each of the 26 council areas, across a range of land uses and produced a measure of the quality of the local environment.

The results indicate that 83% of streets and open spaces in Northern Ireland met or exceeded acceptable standards for visible litter, a 2% fall on the figure in 2013 which was itself a fall of 3% on the year before. This is the worst return since 2005. 

The least littered areas were Low Density Housing areas such as more affluent estates and areas of semi-detached housing, where only 5% of transects failed. The most littered landuse was Rural Areas, where 31% of transects failed.

Cigarette-related litter was the most common type, observed on 73% of transects, although it was down 8% from 2013. Confectionery (57%) and drinks related litter (46%) again the second and third most common. Other than cigarette-related litter, there was almost no change in the percentage of transects on which each type of litter was observed in 2013.

Cigarette-related litter was observed on 95% of retail areas but just 43% of rural areas, with the other land uses between these limits. Drinks litter was more common than cigarette litter in rural areas, while confectionery was most common in recreational areas.

Every type of litter was observed less frequently in low density residential areas than in high density residential areas, with around half as much takeaway-packaging, drinks and non-packaging litter in low density housing areas.

Broken glass was observed on 12% of the 287 recreational transects surveyed, indicating a significant risk of injury to people and animals.

Dog fouling was recorded on 10% of all transects, indicating almost no change in habits from the 11% in 2013, and was most common in high density housing and recreational areas. 17% of the transects which failed did so because of the amount of dog fouling.

Dog fouling was observed in 19% of public parks, 23% of sports pitches and 11% of children's play areas.

The Detritus Pollution Indicator, a measure of longer term coverage of cleansing routines, was 3%, and has remained at less than 5% of transects since the survey began.

Marine Litter

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful carries out 56 surveys on beaches annually. Download the 2014 Marine litter survey report.

During 2014 four surveys were carried out on 14 reference beaches around Northern Ireland using the internationally adopted OSPAR survey methodology. This method is used across Europe for reporting under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Designated bathing beaches were not considered for survey due to the cleansing operations in place.

An average of 3,498 items of litter per kilometre was recorded. 75.3% of the items observed were made of plastic. The most common type of litter was pieces of string and cord, which were observed at an average rate of 476 items per kilometre.

Plastic drinks bottles were observed at an average of 284 items per kilometre, and for metal drinks cans it was 139.

These were particularly abundant around the three fishing harbours of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel on the east coast. Across these three beaches there were an average of 980 plastic bottles per kilometre, and 509 metal drinks cans per kilometre.

Unsurprisingly, items which are commonly observed on our streets as part of terrestrial litter monitoring, including plastic and metal drinks containers and confectionery wrapping, are present in large numbers in marine litter washing up on beaches.