Dr Ian Humphreys: 'This is about more than litter, it’s about pride'
Linda Stewart meets the chief executive of Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful and hears how, despite already transforming our streets, he's nowhere near finished yet.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about your background?
A. I'm married and I have three children. My wife Helen is from Carrickfergus and I'm originally from a place called Major's Green in England. I came here 30 years ago to do my PhD at Queen's in agricultural zoology. I ended up staying there for nine years.
I joined the environmental charity sector and went into Conservation Volunteers as an education officer. I've always had an interest in education and still do.
After 13 or 14 years at Conservation Volunteers I started looking for something new to do, and this job came up with what was then Tidy Northern Ireland. I joined in early 2008 to find that the core funding was on a decreasing trend and things were at quite a low ebb, but I knew it had some fantastic programmes, and the Eco Schools was one of those programmes.
I'm happy to say the charity has grown over the last six years and the impact of the programmes has grown, which is more important.
Q. Why have you rebranded as Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful?
A. We rebranded because the Tidy name, which has stood the test of time and lasted 60 years was, we felt, very narrowly focused on litter. If you look at the programmes we were running and our aspirations, they're broader than that. Eco Schools is the prime example, but the Blue Flag as well, which is about setting quality standards, and the Green Flag for parks and terrestrial sites. We needed a name that fitted that and Keep NI Beautiful seemed the logical step.
Q. Do you notice a difference in people's attitude to litter in Northern Ireland?
A. When I first came over, the focus was on dealing with the Troubles. Because bombs were left in bins, there wouldn't have been bins about to help people even do the right thing, so there was more of an air of dilapidation about than I would have experienced at home.
But that has changed so significantly over the years - now we're not much different from the rest of the UK when it comes to cleanliness. I'm just back from a litter summit in Brussels, and I would say I would notice Brussels was dirtier than Belfast.
Northern Ireland has some of the best scenery - mix that with the friendliness of everybody and you have an absolute winning formula. The only thing I would say is that right across the UK, a lot of people have the habit of dropping litter, and we need to change the minds of that minority to do the right thing.
Q. How is tourism affected by litter?
A. I have a letter here about a company that, to extend the Norwegian fishing season, sent people round the world. Some of them went to Northern Ireland, and when they turned up they found the waterways on the upper Foyle catchment so littered that they cut short their stay and basically aren't sending anybody here.
That one first trip would have been 20 nights' accommodation and eight days' fishing. They not only lost that year but any other subsequent bookings. That's a company that took the time to write a fairly lengthy letter back saying why they weren't coming. They were talking about how reputation is easily lost and how it's hard to build up - and that's businesses here losing trade because of litter. The letter says: "I can't send clients to fish what resembles a landfill site."
That's one letter, and tourists will often write in about litter that they see. We keep our main tourist spots very clean but anybody who goes off the beaten track will usually find stuff. We did go up the Mournes with the Tourist Board a couple of years back as part of our Big Spring Clean and found trailer-loads of rubbish. We couldn't bring it all back. People had gone camping and they didn't even bother bringing their sleeping bags and tents back. What we found was horrendous. That wasn't many yards off the main path up to Slieve Donard.
Tourism is definitely impacted. People are going away saying the place isn't as clean as they would have expected. They don't come here because they think it will be clean - they expect it as the norm. But then they don't find it and it shocks them and they will go home and tell people, and we are less likely to bring more people back. The DoE, 12 local councils and the Tourist Board have now invested in Live Here, Love Here, and that is going to start to tackle these issues.
Q. What places accumulate litter?
A. We certainly see it on beaches. We're surveying 14 beaches four times a year across the stretch of a kilometre and we see some of those beaches are regularly cleaner than others. On the beaches it might be down to winds and tides and the aspect of the beach. What we do know is that 80% of marine litter is from the land, and that litter soup floating around in the sea eventually washes up.
After the storms this January, we saw a massive spike in the amount of litter that was washed up from the seas onto the beaches, and 75% or more is plastic. We see a particular issue around all sorts of litter, not just fishing-related debris, around our three fishing harbours. At the fishing harbours you're talking about maybe 10,000 items in a quarter. There are particular issues with marine litter and the impact as it breaks down. It's going into the food chain as chemicals and that is returning to us.
Q. How are you tackling this problem?
A. We support councils in training and enforcement. We understand that there has to be at the very least a strong perception that if you do something wrong - it is a criminal offence to drop litter - you could get a tap on the shoulder and somebody gives you a fixed penalty notice.
We support that, but we think there's far more benefit and behaviour change to be had if we work with the positive aspects, so for the vast majority of our work, the focus is on trying to change littering behaviour.
We have the Coast Care programme, which has grown every year in terms of the number of volunteers and the number of groups and the number of bags of rubbish they're removing. A lot of people ask: "Why do people clean up other people's litter - what's the point?" But I have seen first-hand the deterrent effect clean-ups have on other people.
Most people know littering is wrong and feel bad about doing it. Clean-ups and the high visibility they have puts other people off littering. A clean place has been proven to stay cleaner, whereas a dirty place attracts litter.
In Northern Ireland, cleaning our streets costs £40m a year. Look at vandalism - you're talking about another £69m a year. Look at graffiti - you're talking about another £38m a year. These are big things we could start doing and big savings we could start making if we could tackle the root cause and stop it at source.
Q. How are people getting on board with the campaigns?
A. The Big Spring Clean, which the Belfast Telegraph has been an absolutely sound part of for the past five years and has helped grow, has grown from 2,500 people in 2010 to this year when we had more than 105,000 people. That shows us a goodwill in society - they want a better place to live.
More recently, we've kicked off the Live Here, Love Here campaign, which is about building civic pride and building ownership and capacity in communities to set the standards they want and not rely totally on councils.
Q. What will it mean on the ground?
A. We hear from people who say: "I'm on my own, I'm knocking my pan in trying to sort this." There's a need for people to understand that they are part of a growing movement and that they're not alone.
One of the things there will be a media campaign to let people know what's happening, to take part, and to promote action, but also to let people know they're part of a bigger movement and they're not on their own. We might also have a photographic competition of people showing why they love where they live.
We'll have a calendar of events that will make it easy for people to do the right thing and take action in some fun way,s but also in some practical ways like clean-ups. We'll also be tackling dereliction and developing green space. We have a small grants programme which has just closed now - a bit of money put into a community group can go a long way.
We've already got people who want to do stuff for nothing. Giving them some money to help them take action will make it go a lot further.
Q. What sort of projects are emerging?
A. We've funded 42 projects out of more than 90 applications - everything from clean-ups to people who want to collect plastic bottles and maybe make a greenhouse out of it.
There's a Mallusk group who are purchasing equipment. If there's bad snow in the winter, the community will come together to shovel out the paths of rural and isolated people.
We have an inter-generational group in Kilkeel coming together to take ownership of a derelict car park area. They are going to clean it up and put in some planters in there.
Another group in Washingbay wants to create wildflower space in an overgrown and abandoned meadow. They hope to re-establish the Irish lady's tresses flower, working closely with council and the local beekeeping association.
There's also Skegoniel and Glandour Common Purpose, who are bringing local residents together to improve their environment and transform a derelict interface space into a garden. They say it's not about growing fruit and veg, but also relationships in an interface area.
Civic pride can be built in many ways, and we didn't want to restrict the funding just to litter, particularly when other groups have very good ideas about how civic pride can be built there. So it is very broad and it will be interesting to follow some of those groups through a few years and see how civic pride is built.
These are projects that will make Northern Ireland more beautiful, both for people who live here and people who visit.
When I worked with Conservation Volunteers, the team was asked to clean an area from the airport to the Invest NI site because companies had come over, seen the litter and asked: "Is this what people are like here?" Then they have gone away, not invested and they have commented on it.
So, tourism jobs are at stake, there are potentially inward investment jobs at stake and there's the cost of the clean-up. All of this means we have a poorer quality of life, never mind the fact that the environment suffers, wildlife suffers, our health suffers - it's a no-brainer. And people that don't get it, we have to help them understand - and not in a finger-wagging way. We have to help them understand that it's better for everyone if we all do the right thing.
Q. What about the future?
A. I think we could significantly reduce the amount of litter we are measuring if we could follow in the footsteps of the likes of Texas, where the Don't Mess With Texas campaign has had a 5% reduction in the level of visible litter every year for nearly three decades now. So it is doable.
Everywhere we look, we can see there are so many ways people can improve the savings that can be made. We've worked with a lot of schools on energy projects, for example.
Two of NI's schools won the Global Day of Action awards across what is now 60 nations doing Eco Schools - the first two top prizes on energy came to Northern Ireland. The schools estate could be saving millions of pounds on energy, and over a million on waste, just by simple behaviour changes - not a big investment. One school had saved £6,000 off its energy bill in a year. Now that's significant at a time when budgets are just being cut and cut and cut. A lot of these things aren't by doing something special, that's the point I'm trying to make. It's just by changing behaviour a little bit.
There are significant cuts coming to the department and I feel everyone's going to have to take their share of the pain, but there are some areas where we have to look at how we deal with stuff differently. I've talked about the potential to extend the producer responsibility scheme, which is being discussed in Europe, but there's no reason to stop Northern Ireland going ahead sooner than that if we wanted.
There are opportunities to bring in additional levies - the carrier bag levy has worked very, very well. We have presented papers to the minister on introducing bottle deposit schemes, for example. In recent years, bottles have moved into the top three types of litter that we encounter - and PET is quite a valuable commodity, in fact. Bottle deposit schemes have been proven to be very efficient and very effective, but we might need to have an all-Ireland scheme to make it work.
What I would caution against is a 'let's cut it all' approach because we've got no money. Actually, at times when austerity is kicking in, there's a need to invest in young people, to give them the capacity and the resilience to deal with what they're facing, and the same goes for adults. I would argue that because of the way things like Eco Schools and Live Here, Love Here can help people save money, and the way they can build pride and people taking responsibility, we should be thinking about putting more into those schemes to help people when the pressures are on, rather than cutting those funds.
As austerity kicks in we will have to get more creative and innovative. Helping people take positive action to deal with the situation they're in is the way that government can play a key role in meeting all of its statutory obligations.