5 April 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

For a county comprised of towns and villages that pride themselves on a strong sense of community, Monaghan people are astonishingly tolerant of the activities of the minority who blight our urban and rural environments with the pollution of litter and waste.

The standards achieved annually by our participants in the Tidy Towns initiative communicate the level of hard work and commitment given voluntarily in the cause of creating and maintaining a clean living environment.

While there is certainly some degree of competitive motivation powering these endeavours, the chief reward for the expenditure of so much effort remains satisfaction and a sense of duty fulfilled – making the manner in which a formidable weight of collective effort can be undermined by the flytipping and littering actions of a few even more exasperating and intolerable.
The civic pride that motives the community sector in this regard is shared by the executive and outdoor staff of our local authorities, who devote considerable expense and manual effort to the daily, largely unacknowledged task of keeping our towns and villages clean.

The value and extent of the Town and Co Councils’ contribution in this regard was vividly demonstrated by its temporary absence from the streets of Monaghan Town on Easter Monday last.
Because of overtime restrictions in play on Bank Holidays, there was no early morning street scavenging – and the sight which greeted people traversing the streets of the county town as a consequence was shocking, with the detritus of alcohol and fast food consumption strewn widely in an appalling indictment of the behaviour of a section of the revellers in Monaghan the night before.

The scene – which drew an apology from the Cathaoirleach of Monaghan Town Council, Seamus Treanor, during Tuesday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council – might prompt some to lay the finger of blame at the local authority for not negotiating terms with their outdoor workers that would have seen the mess cleaned up.

But accusations in this regard are fundamentally misdirected.

It would be regrettable if the labour relations situation preventing the carrying out of this work were not resolved to ensure no repeat of this unsightly occurrence over future holiday weekends.

But the fact that the litter lay uncollected for a period served to bring home the extent of the problem which Council workers have to contend with at such times – the damning evidence of a dreadful pattern of repeat behaviour that now costs this county’s local authorities around €0.5 million a year to deal with.

A debate at Tuesday’s meeting of the Co Council showed that this problem is not confined to our towns – the seclusion of rural areas is continuing to act as a magnet for the dumping of all manner of refuse, and the practice of flinging rubbish from vehicles traversing the N2 in the county persists unabated.

Punitive measures are to the fore when the search for a vaccine to cure the litter epidemic is undertaken in public forums – and there was much talk on Tuesday of the punishments that best fit the crime.

There is certainly a strong body of statutory provision in place through the Litter Act for offenders in this regard to be punished.

But any law is only as strong as the means given to the relevant agency to enforce it – the imbalance between the frequency of offending and the frequency of prosecution under the legislation suggests strongly that local authorities are chronically under-resourced to discharge this responsibility.

The use of CCTV systems is often recommended as a panacea for this and other public disorder ills but this approach has its limitations both as a deterrent and as a mechanism for gathering evidence of sufficient clarity to meet the standards of proof required in court.

As the Co Council’s Environmental Officer Nial O’Connor pointed out on Tuesday, the camera eye is of limited value when incidents of dumping are perpetrated in unlit secluded areas in the dead of night.

Unless people are caught in the act, or are careless enough to leave identifying evidence among the rubbish they illegally discard, prosecutions are problematic.

The courts in our area have imposed rigorous sanctions in the past on those convicted of serious litter-related offences, and even those guilty of relatively minor infractions have received a salutary “hit” in the pocket – but while such cases do have some deterrent impact for a time, they do not arise with sufficient frequency to exercise lasting dissuasion.

The problem is, fundamentally, a behavioural one – a bad habit acquired and allowed to grow ingrained by peer tolerance or indifference.

Monaghan Co Council’s litter management strategy as outlined on Tuesday by Mr O’Connor places emphasis on positive promotion and education, and the long-term value of this approach in containing the epidemic should not be underestimated.

The proper message is getting through to young people at a very early age – given the number of places of education in our county that proudly bear the ‘Green School’ designation, it may well be our children who will bring about the change in attitude required by setting a good example that will shame their elders into compliance!

But it will be a very bad indictment on our county if we have to wait for the emerging generation to come to maturity in order to change prevailing attitudes about what we do with the rubbish we create.

If each of us took more stringent personal responsibility for our own actions in this regard, and communicated a zero tolerance attitude of mind towards our peers, we could very quickly substantially reduce the tonnage of litter that falls to our local authorities or community volunteers to clean up after us.

We can no longer be ambivalent about this major environmental problem that we too often refuse to see under our very noses – and we must be prepared to reprimand and even report those we witness contributing to it.

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