For many, Sunday mornings consist of long lie ins, warm coffee and an opportunity to savour those last few hours of rest and relaxation before the start of another week of early mornings and busy lives. For one group of dedicated volunteers however, Sunday mornings are about bright early rises, wellies and gloves, and wading knee deep into cold water to drag out the leftovers of last nights ‘parties’. As Sunday morning’s go it’s far from glamorous, but it is undeniably admirable.
Rising in the Wicklow mountains, the River Dodder snakes through Dublin suburbs such as Tallaght, Firhouse, Rathfarnum, Milltown, Donnybrook and Ballsbridge before entering the sea at Grand Canal Dock. The river forms part of the Dublin ecosphere and is home to various species of flora and fauna. It is also a popular river for fishing as well as birdwatchers hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive kingfisher bird. Unfortunately, the river has also become victim to increased littering and illegal dumping, as waste and debris is swept through its waters creating an unsightly eyesore for both locals and visitors alike.
Dodder Action Group consist of various local volunteer groups who make it their mission to preserve the beauty of the river and maximise its potential to be a local and community amenity. The group, among other projects, organises weekly litter pick ups where volunteers head out early in the morning to clean the river and surrounding green areas. Last Sunday morning I went along with the group to see first hand how severe the issue with littering and illegal dumping along the river is, and to find out what the members of the group feel is the best way of tackling this seemingly endemic affliction polluting the river.
I joined the group at Dodder Riverbank Park in Firhouse, West Dublin. A crisp but sunny April morning, locals enjoy their morning walks around the park as members of the action group make their way down to the river armed with gloves, litter pickers, black bags etc ready to start the thankless job of cleaning up the latest accumulation of discarded plastic, broken bottles and drinking cans. Taken aback by the volume of discarded rubbish, which I was told was a ‘good’ day, I asked some of the members for their opinions on why the issue was becoming so prevalent along the river.
Group member, and local resident, Wladek Gaj tells me that the issue is “multi-factorial” and not simply a case of the odd discarded bottle or plastic bag ending up in the river
“We are finding typical litter such as plastic bottles, coffee cups, shopping bags etc but we are also finding discarded dog poo bags along with bulky items such as bikes, shopping trolleys, electrical appliances. In secluded parts we often find the remints of parties including drug paraphernalia which is either left on the bank or simply thrown into the river“
The Covid-19 Pandemic has exacerbated the problem and The Dodder is not the only waterway afflicted by the increased littering from drinking bottles and cans. With local amenities and pubs closed due to ongoing restrictions, individuals have taken to congregating next to the waterways such as the Dublin Canals, leading to an increase in the accumulation of discarded rubbish finding its way into the water. The issue has received increased media attention as the improved weather of late has seen increased socialising outdoors and with it, an increase in littering.
Indeed the issue of littering and in particular, fly tipping, has become a national issue and reports from around the country detail local authorities and community groups ongoing battle with the issue. The lack of enforcement has frustrated volunteers who feel there is little fear on the part of those who litter being caught let alone suffering any type of financial penalty or conviction.
Members of the group tell me how the council have a ‘reactive’ response to littering as opposed to any proactive strategy. There are only 5 litter wardens for South County Dublin which has a population of close to 278,749 according to the 2016 census. There is an expectation on the part of local residents from the council to ‘police’ anti-social behavior and the term passive surveillance is often used by council members when pressed on the issue. Perhaps the most exacerbating issue raised is that there is no anti-litter signage in the park let alone bins as a fear of vandalism has led the council to remove them entirely.
My morning with the group naturally begs the question as to what can be done to curb the current spate of littering as what exists now is clearly not working. It cant be left to the good will and selflessness of volunteer groups such as the Dodder group to be responsible for cleaning the river.
“There is a clear absence of empathy and appreciation of nature” comments one member of the group. They point out that there is a complete lack of government sponsored anti-litter campaigns and educational programs. These type of campaigns are limited to NGO’s and therefore don’t have the same reach as national campaigns do. If we are going to do anything about this increasingly worsening situation then we need to educate people, especially younger children and teenagers.
The group also want to see the introduction of initiatives to help people recycle more such as reverse vending machines for returning plastic bottles. The scheme was implemented by the Carrickmacross Tidy Towns committee in Co. Monagahan. For every plastic bottle returned, the individual receives ten cents and in a little over two years almost 30,000 bottles have been recycled.
Some members would like to see more punitive measures introduced such as community service where those found to be littering or dumping illegally would be sent out to collect litter and clean rivers. Individuals found guilty of uncontrolled graffiti are often made to clean it as it is seen as criminal damage yet there is no such punishment for littering.
Three weeks ago, the government introduced the Climate Action Bill which enshrined in law the ambitious target of halving carbon emissions by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. While this a step in the right direction in reducing Ireland’s impact on the global environment, it significance feels somewhat hollow given the government’s apparent willingness to turn a blind eye to the issues afflicting the local Irish environment. Being the poster boy for reducing carbon emissions means little to those residents who can’t enjoy their local parks and waterways without coming across an ever increasing amount of litter and pollutants. If we are to truly deserve the reputation of being the ‘Emerald Isle’ then we need to make a concerted effort as a society to clean up our act. It can’t be left to the goodwill and selflessness of groups like Dodder to clean up for us.