Saturday, September 04, 2004

We're a scruffy lot of litter louts

We Irish surely are a scruffy crew.

I suppose that's not a nice thing to say. Nor is it the kind of image about ourselves that we've been promoting and accepting for generations.

Warm, generous, good fun. Happy go lucky. And, sometimes, great at the business or in the sports.

All of the above we may be. But we're still that top one, too. Scruffy littermakers.

There was a time when the Irish countryside and the town streets were covered in discarded plastic bags. The kind that supermarkets give out to bring home the shopping in.

Or that they used to ...

Because a few years ago, our Government of the day decided to tax those plastic bags. If you wanted one, it cost you 15 cents. The money raised was ringfenced for environmental projects.

And sure enough, having to pay for the bags pushed most of us to keep reusable shopping bags in the car, or bring them when we went to buy the wine.

The use of disposable plastic bags declined dramatically. Though not completely, because some 28 million euros has been collected by the special tax. And recent figures seem to indicate that more bags are being bought, so there's talk of raising the amount of tax ...

And there's one thing that nobody mentions. That, because households like mine don't have a cache of supermarket bags to use as bin liners in our homes, we're now buying liners, presumably to the same numbers as we used to get free bags with our shopping.

Anyway, the countryside did get cleaner. And we've been patting ourselves on the back, or various politicians have been doing it on our behalf. 'Wasn't it a great thing we did, cleaning up our country? Sure aren't we Irish great people altogether?'

Thing is, I regularly travel to countries across Europe which don't have a special tax on shopping bags to help keep their citizens from dumping on the countryside. And that same countryside is inevitably plastic bag-free anyhow.

So, us 'great altogether' Irish have to be financially penalised to refrain from littering. Penalised at source, of course, which is quite different from financially penalising anyone caught in the act of littering.

All of us who didn't throw our bags away have been considered guilty in advance of the fact, and are effectively fined if we decide we need a plastic bag at the checkout counter. Fined in case we would litter.

And, of course, many of us would, it seems from the result.

Other countries' people don't seem to have in them the same propensity to throw litter. So they don't have to be pre-emptively fined.

All of which brings me to the opening of the school year this week. And once again, because there's a school across from the bottom of my road, students tend to come up this road at lunchtime to eat their sweets, sandwiches, chocolate, and in many instances have a smoke.

And once again, they invariably leave all their wrappings and fag boxes and butts and plastic coke bottles on the pavement when they go back to school.

These are second-level students. These are coming from homes where, presumably, their parents encourage them not to litter?

Students whom, we are told by their school principal, get a reminder every morning in school that they should refrain from littering?

So why do they inevitably leave their junk behind them? Especially when there's a litter bin outside the shop as they head back to their school?

You tell me. All I know is that, even unto the newest generation of young people starting out as Irish citizens, learning about stuff that will hopefully take them to good jobs and bright futures, we Irish still seem to be a scruffy lot.

Maybe the Government should impose a tax on children's pocket money, on the premise that they will inevitably spend it partly on disfiguring the countryside with discarded wrappers?

It could be charged by the shopkeeper at point of sale, let's say a one-euro charge for every 10 euros of purchases of merchandise with wrappers by anyone under 18.

OK, maybe that's an extreme suggestion. But it's the pity of it at all that I'm forced to even consider such an idea, albeit only in irony ...

(BTW - if anyone reading this recognises their stuff, they can come and collect it from my bin.)

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