Fionola Meredith: Whopping fines and not positive messages are the proper way for us to deal with litter louts
Trying to explain nicely why discarding rubbish is bad for environment will never work, says Fionola Meredith
Can we stop being nice, kind and understanding about people who litter? Taking part in a recent radio debate, I was somewhat flummoxed to hear a campaigner for cleaner neighbourhoods argue that increasing fines for dropping rubbish was not the answer. Claiming that some people were "not aware" of the issue of littering, he said that "engaging with people positively is a much stronger mechanism".
It's all very well-intentioned but I don't think there's a hope in hell of that strategy working. The scummy, selfish creeps who chuck their rubbish on the ground, or out their car window as they sail blithely along the street, are not going to respond to an earnest, David Attenborough-style lecture about the harm they're doing to the environment.
If a hedgehog chokes on a crisp-bag that they yinged by the side of the road, do you really think they give a stuff?
As for people being unaware - are you actually telling me that these louts haven't yet understood that distributing your waste around town like a one-man (or one-woman) muck-spreader is socially unacceptable?
Come on. Get real. They may be thick as mince, but they know fine rightly what they are doing is wrong. The point is they just do not care.
And by the way I've witnessed Malone Road matrons throw rubbish from the rolled down window of their high-end SUVs - sometimes louts wear Prada.
I'd like to see anti-litter campaigners going into battle against this disgusting army of slobs with a roar of passionate rage, calling them out for their irresponsible, anti-social behaviour, demanding more decisive, punitive action - like a big increase in the cost of fines - from the authorities. Not limply waving around a few statistics, inviting us to go on a training course or appealing to people's better nature.
An adult who throws a half-eaten carton of takeway food on the pavement is essentially an ignorant, overgrown kid with entitlement issues. You're not going to "educate" him or her into cleaning up their act.
In Northern Ireland, we're in deep denial about the extent of our litter problem. Basically we're constantly rolling around in our own squalor and we've come to think of this as normal.
It's not normal. We are people who dump mountains of tyres in nature reserves or sling stained mattresses by the side of the road. In the last two years, the Department of the Environment has spent half a million pounds cleaning up fly-tipping incidents.
You could say we're like pigs, but you'd be wrong because pigs are actually pretty clean creatures - and clearly we're not. When it comes to creating a pristine, civilised environment, we're barely out of the bog.
The glorious weather we've been enjoying over the last few weeks really exposes the scale of the problem. If you've been to the beach lately, you'll know what I mean.
Hot sunshine appears to make some people think they have a special license to picnic at the shore then leave drinks bottles, burnt-out barbecues and dirty nappies behind them when they go home because hey, it's summer.
Some 437 items of litter were found per 100 metres of beach last year, 82% of which was plastic, according to a report by Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.
Around 30% of the litter was described as 'single use plastic', so called because it's used just once and then thrown away.
Our stupid, childish attitude to littering is deeply engrained in the culture and none of us are entirely immune. I remember going to a rock concert in Berlin, where I sipped my beer from a plastic cup then set it on the floor when I was finished, promptly forgetting about it - just like we do back home in Belfast.
Later, as one of the last to leave, I looked back to see my discarded cup sitting solitary on the huge expanse of empty floor. Everyone else had taken their cups back to the bar and had their €1 deposit returned.
The Germans, like most Europeans, are largely civilised people. We haven't evolved that far yet.
The only way this stinking situation is going to fundamentally change is if children are taught from the word go that dropping rubbish is wrong. Parents and schools have a huge duty to educate youngsters about personal and social responsibility.
One of the most depressing sights is an oafish mother or father throwing litter on the ground while their young impressionable child looks on. That, right there, is the next generation of louts learning how to be a lazy, dirty slob and get away with it.