Why can't we keep Ireland clean? #Sorrymehole and our fondness for fly-tipping

It's illegal, immoral and we know it hurts our environment, but we still dump rubbish in our most beautiful locations. John Meagher asks experts how big a problem our greener Ireland still has with fly-tipping

Making a difference: Ian Davis of the PURE Project in the Dublin/Wicklow mountains; and below, some of the illegal dumping. Picture by Mark Condren

Some of the illegal dumping

thumbnail: Making a difference: Ian Davis of the PURE Project in the Dublin/Wicklow mountains; and below, some of the illegal dumping. Picture by Mark Condren
thumbnail: Some of the illegal dumping
John Meagher

To go from Dublin into the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, you journey along the Old Military Road from the foothills of Rathfarnham and within minutes you are in a place so wild and remote it is scarcely believable that the city is just around the corner, out of sight.

The road was constructed in the first decade of the 19th century and became an important thoroughfare linking the wilderness of Wicklow with the capital. It remains a wonderfully evocative place to be, whether you take your car or join the lycra-clad hordes on your road bike. The adjoining Cunard Road and White's Road invite you to abandon your car and amble along at your ease. The magnificent Glenasmole valley with Bohernabreena reservoir in the distance is enough to take the breath away.

It's a part of the country that seems completely removed from man-made concerns.

But Ian Davis knows only too well that while many adore this part of Ireland and leave no trace, for others it is a dumping ground where they can off-load mattresses, sofas, kitchen appliances and countless other waste products.

Some of the illegal dumping

Davis is the project manager of PURE - which stands for Protecting Uplands and Rural Environments. It is an environmental organisation run in partnership with a host of statutory and non-statutory bodies such as Wicklow County Council, Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and it has been tackling illegal dumping in the area since 2006. And anyone who thinks the problem may have been on a modest scale has clearly never spent a day on clean-up with Davis or with the 2,500-strong volunteers who have given their time this year.

"Since the project was launched, we have collected over 3,400 tonnes of illegal dumping up until the end of last year," Davis says. "That's the equivalent of over 400,000 black bags."

It is a huge amount of waste - much of it household materials - and Davis says offenders don't fit preconceptions. "It could be anyone," he says. "Male, female, wealthy or not, young, old, you-name-it. The only thing they have in common is they are willing to illegally dispose of their rubbish and that they expect to get away with it.

"All kinds of demographics and all kinds of people are dumping illegally," he adds. "You've people who park the car, pick this beautiful scenic location, enjoy their lunch and then - bizarrely - throw all the contents of that lunch out the window. Then you've people coming up in the day time throwing out bags of rubbish. And you've people coming up in the night-time and disposing of an truck-load of rubbish."

But they are getting caught - and risking public shame as well as a hefty fine and conviction. Public shame has certainly been the case for a Galway man this week who was caught on camera dumping a mattress into a bog hole from the side of a road. The footage, captured by a passing motorist who confronted the man, was uploaded on to YouTube and went viral last weekend. It may have been filmed three years ago, but it's only now that the easily identifiable perpetrator will have felt the full force of the court of public opinion.

While there was some mirth in the "sorry me hole" rejoinder uttered by the van driver who had approached the sheepish figure, there was widespread revulsion that someone - particularly one who was senior in years and clearly well-to-do - could think it was okay to dump an unwanted mattress into a bog as flagrantly as he did.

Davis was not surprised by the reaction. "The public are much more aware today of all aspects of the environment including litter, illegal dumping, fly-tipping, single-use plastics, recycling and the effect dumping has on the environment itself," he says. "They take it much more seriously now and consider it to be an environmental crime, similar to other crimes in society."

Those who dump illegally can be fined up to €5,000 and could face imprisonment. And PURE has been at the centre of some of the successful prosecutions in South Dublin and Wicklow in recent times.

Covert CCTV

"We're the only project of its kind that records and documents every incident of illegal dumping by GPS/GIS mapping system," Davis says. "If a site is flagged as being continually affected by illegal dumping, we then do up a report and we install and deploy covert CCTV. Over the years, we've caught numerous people this way, whether they're throwing away crisp bags and bottles or dumping black bags and right up to someone pulling up in a truck and dumping three tonnes of waste."

There are signs proclaiming the existence of CCTV, but there's no way of knowing where they are in the largely treeless hillsides on either side of Old Military Road.

"We had a successful case last December over a covert operation that we undertook for three months," he says. "The person was brought before the courts, prosecuted and fined €2,800. We have three more large-scale illegal dumping incidents that were captured on covert CCTV last year and they will be coming before the courts this year. And we have a number of big dumping incidents caught this year on camera and they will be coming before the courts in 2020."

And it's not just householders who are dumping in such a way. Often it's the so-called 'white van man' who offers to take away rubbish for a basic flat fee. "These unauthorised waste collectors are a continual problem," Davis says. "They are going around, knocking on people's doors and saying, 'Do you want me to take away that waste and rubbish outside your door?' It could be a tonne of waste, it could be two tonnes. They say, 'Give me €50 and we'll take it away.' They don't have a valid waste collection permit and they cannot dispose of it legitimately for €50. Instead, they go up to the mountains and they dump it up there."

It's a problem in places like Cork, too, according to Nick Bond who is the head of waste enforcement for the southern region. And, he says, it's not just the illegal operator who risks a fine and conviction, it's the householder, too. "There have been prosecutions against people who have used these white van men.

"If we find evidence on the side of the road - like a letter bearing your name and address, for instance, and it can be traced back to you - we will prosecute. It may be just a litter fine, or it may be something more, but giving waste to an unauthorised collector is an offence. And protesting your innocence isn't good enough. It is an offence under the Waste Management Act."

Bond says householders must establish if the operator offering to remove their rubbish is legitimate. "You can go on to the National Waste Collection Permit Office," he says, "and check the person's name and see if they're a waste collection permit number. You ask them for that number, too - they're required to have it and present you with it."

Bond says there have been bulky waste collections initiatives in several counties in his jurisdiction, including Kilkenny, Wexford and Kerry. "We have to be conscious that people need to be able to get rid of their bulky waste," he says. "And it also addresses the question of capacity in our landfills. We can direct mattresses and couches and so on back into the social economy where they are recycled and material recovered.

"It prevents waste going to landfill and that's important that mattresses are collected when they're dry and they can be used and recycled. Once they get wet after being dumped on the side of the road, they have to go to landfill. That's one of the issues - they take up space and we're short of space."

Cormac Mac Gearailt, an inspector with the Environmental Protection Agency, says the recovery of even one mattress dumped illegally can eat into costs and manpower. "One of the [anti-waste government-funded] initiatives that was very effective last year was the 'mattress amnesty' [where unwanted mattresses could be brought to local authority bring centres]. Almost 11,000 mattresses were collected. Compared to someone being fined for dumping, it sounds banal and yet it's a really significant thing because those mattresses can all be recycled.

"Compare that to one tossed into the ditch and becoming saturated with water. A local authority has to get a special crew out because you can't just send a lad down with a pair of wellies to pull it out. It's not safe. You can imagine the impact on time and resources."

Mac Gearailt says the Department of the Environment's anti-dumping initiative led to 200-odd projects around the country last year, with over 2,500 tonnes of illegal waste collected.

"There have been some really effective strategies," he says. "There was a whole load of dumping blackspots around Ballymun [Dublin]. They did a clean-up of those blackspots and rather than just leaving it there and risking people coming back and doing it again, they turned them into micro parks, with picket fences and flowers, and that's meant the locals were more likely to protect them and see them as value.

"You'd a plastic-free week in Galway and hazardous waste collection initiatives around the county with 12 tonnes alone collected in one day in Kildare."

The department earmarked €3m for 2019 and much of that has gone on clean-up projects in places like Belmullet in Mayo, according to Sean Scott, the waste enforcement director for Connacht/Ulster. The clean-up of this rugged part of the Mayo coastline involved bringing in a crane and specialist abseilers to gather plastics and other rubbish gathered on the cliff-face.

'Mattress Man'

"We started an initiative, It's Not In Our Nature, Is It In Yours?' to raise awareness about illegal dumping and that's been rolled out around the country now," he says. "It's a message that's really penetrating. We had one of the biggest clean-ups in Ireland in Donegal and the level of public engagement was incredible."

Scott says there is no longer any tolerance for illegal dumping and he believes the viral video of the dumper - dubbed 'Mattress Man' - will make would-be offenders think. "I think it will have an impact on behaviour," he says. "Would you want to be that man. And his family?

"The revulsion on social media has been incredible. It's a small number who are dumping. The majority are appalled by it. And in this part of the country, where we're so proud of the Wild Atlantic Way and how it can bring people into the region, we want to see an end to that kind of behaviour."

Meanwhile, Ian Davis believes the message really is getting through. "We have seen a reduction in illegal dumping from 440 tonnes removed in 2008 to 160 tonnes removed in 2018 - that's a 65pc reduction in 10 years.

"There's definitely a behavioural change within society. The environment is becoming primary now and people want to make a difference - we know that because the Pure Mile [an initiative started by PURE in 2010] has been such a success. You've over 2,500 volunteers going up to the mountains to clean up in areas that they don't even live in - and, on Pure Mile alone, we'll remove approximately 3,000 black bags this year."

PURE was established on a pilot basis in 2006 and is set to be wound up in December, but Davis says he will lobby strongly for it to be maintained. "I will be meeting with the Department and minister and I would be hopeful and confident they would continue to support the project and that it will continue on for the next 10 years.

"If there's an element of taking the foot off the gas we're just going to go back to the old days, to the days where there were tonnes of rubbish illegally dumped in the mountains. And nobody wants to return to those days."