Public and council have role to play in tackling our messy streets
There has been a lot of talk recently about Belfast’s litter problem. People are sharing pictures of rubbish lining the streets of Belfast on social media, and words like ‘dirty’ and ‘unsightly’ are increasingly used to describe the city centre.
Litter clearly degrades public perception of Belfast, but this problem is about more than aesthetics. It impacts our economy, health and wellbeing, and sense of community.
Tourism is often cited as an example of one of the sectors most impacted by littering, because rubbish is an immediate turn-off for tourists. Tourism represents a significant percentage of Northern Ireland’s GDP, generating money and jobs, but current levels of litter mean that visitors to the city centre will be highly unlikely to book a return trip.
However, the sense of public frustration and disappointment around seeing litter in Belfast demonstrates how this problem affects locals as well as visitors. Litter damages civic pride and weakens community resilience. People want to be proud, not ashamed, of the area where they live.
This is particularly true for shared, public spaces which are vital for peoples’ health and wellbeing. Parks, areas with outdoor seating, and gardens are designed to bring people together, yet people do not use them when they are run down and dirty.
We already witnessed first-hand the immense value of shared public space during lockdown. Outdoor spaces connected people with nature and with each other, serving as some of the only spaces where we could meet to socialise safely.
Of course, litter is not just a problem in urban areas. Almost half of rural roads in Northern Ireland fail to meet acceptable standards of cleanliness. Littering in rural areas is especially damaging for the environment because it impacts wildlife, and contributes to the problem of waste and pollution. Single-use plastics and takeaway packaging are some of the most common items found in hedgerows, and these are also dangerous to livestock.
Many people across Northern Ireland are already taking a proactive approach towards littering by getting involved in litter picks and clean-ups. However, simply putting the onus on individuals to commit to not littering, or cleaning up the mess, will not solve this problem. Nor will a quick, temporary cosmetic fix. Only political will, bold imagination and more investment in the city will effectively address the litter problem.
Although anti-litter campaigns do a good job raising awareness about the environmental impact of littering, they tend to be most successful when they are directed towards a specific issue, like marine pollution. Anti-litter action therefore must go further than campaigns. Policy and enforcement around littering needs to be much tighter. This does not necessarily mean littering fines, which elicit mixed responses among people, but could take the form of a deposit-return scheme. Countries like Germany and Finland have already seen huge success with deposit-return systems, which pay people to collect litter items, such as cans and bottles. Finally, putting more bins in the city centre, and ensuring that they are well-placed and regularly serviced, would also mean that people do not litter in the first place.
One of the reasons that Belfast has been slow to address litter is because of questions of ownership and responsibility. In the same way that there is no legal definition for litter, there is equally no easy way to define who is responsible for it. Belfast City Council has set up a Cleansing Task Force to deal directly with litter, but alongside Council, Department for Economy, Department for Infrastructure and the Housing Executive all play a role in tackling this problem. Private property owners also have a collective responsibility to address litter and waste.
However, while a common theme in this debate is ‘who is responsible for what’, we should start to instead ask the question: who will step up and lead? We do not have time to wait. Inaction only increases the public expense of cleaning the city. Research also shows that the longer we leave it, the longer it takes to clean up the mess — quite literally. Littering more than doubles in areas which already have litter because people have the impression that it is acceptable to leave rubbish. By contrast, keeping an area tidy will motivate people to maintain levels of cleanliness.
It feels like we have adjusted to seeing cans, cigarette butts and discarded food packages in the streets of Belfast. However, we cannot settle for this degraded version of our city.
It may not seem like the most interesting or glamorous dinner table conversation, but we must keep talking about litter to ensure that politicians understand why action is needed. Littering is a problem that cannot be solved by individuals alone, and we therefore need to create a collective responsibility and action plan for keeping the city clean.