John Masterson: We all hate litter ... except the louts who laugh at us

Kilkenny Castle

First of all credit where credit is due. Kilkenny was once again named the cleanest town in Ireland in the Irish Business Against Litter annual survey. This is the fourth time Kilkenny has been so rewarded. I walk in the city centre a few times most weeks and there are plenty of well-placed, and frequently emptied, litter bins. An early morning walker told me there are teams out cleaning the streets before dawn. A man with a sweeping machine is permanently at work.

The disturbing truth is that in Kilkenny, and throughout Ireland, if there were not substantial county council and voluntary resources put into picking up litter that has been dropped by louts the entire country would be filthy. The Tidy Towns people do fantastic clean-ups. Yet many people think nothing of dropping cigarette butts in the street. Chewing gum is a plague. And that is just the high streets. If you veer off the beaten track and go up the side streets there is litter everywhere. Bottles and cans are left, despite the fact that they can be easily recycled for free. On a four-mile walk in rural Ireland recently myself and friend estimated that we could easily have filled 10 black sacks, and probably more. These must have all been thrown out of cars. That is a behavioural problem.

We can clean up as much as we like, but how do you change the behaviour of people who see nothing wrong with throwing a pizza box on the ground. Ask a politician and they will tell you all about the legislation and fines that they have put in place. The dogs in the street (and for the moment let us leave what they do to one side) know full well that these fines are never, or hardly ever, enforced. The other route is education both by schools and by parents. Somehow or other over the years we have moved from a situation where littering was a complete no-no to one where I have seen parents litter with their children.

Without a doubt the problem has got worse since rubbish collection ceased to be done out of general taxation and people have to pay to have their waste collected. Most citizens behave responsibly, but the minority that do not cause an awful mess.

Even with the law-abiding householders there are three bins outside houses and still litter everywhere. I drove past a terrace of houses in Dublin and I am certain there were more ugly bins on view in front of the redbricks than there were inhabitants within. There are two towns I visit each year in France that are spotless. They both use the same system. Each town has a modest amount of litter bins but also mini collection centres where there are three bins that are easy to drop litter into. There is one for glass, one for plastic and paper and one for general domestic refuse. There are several such fixtures through the town in places where it is easy for a walker to drop in a bag, and where there is ample space for a car to pull up and empty a bootful. Further, people leave things that they do not want but are often in perfect condition beside the "bins" and they usually disappear rapidly. This system works. If you own a property in France, you will pay a residence tax, ownership tax and a waste collection tax. That would fill the streets here with concerned citizens. Not with litter.

Well done Kilkenny for coming out top of the pile. A big effort is being made and it is supported by a stupid system that is not being enforced. And no politician has the guts to deal with it.