Pól Ó Conghaile: How to turn litter into a lesson in optimism

I saw some intriguing things on a walk in the Wicklow Mountains last week.

There were beautiful winter browns – “different shades of dead”, as my son described them. There was the awesome vista of Lough Tay (above), poured like a peaty pint of Guinness into its valley. There was the 5,000-year-old passage tomb of Seefin crowning a desolate peak.

Oh, and there was a bunch of discarded Christmas lights, cider cans, a hard drive and a burnt-out car.

I don’t mean to single out Wicklow, where the Pure Project has made progress against illegal dumping. Another recent walk, through a 19th century estate and school in Co Galway, was dotted with crisp packets, cans and wrappers. A laneway leading to a housing estate looked like bins had actually been emptied into it.

Walkers all over Ireland know the feeling. Crisp air reddens the cheeks, conversation is flowing and devices have been stowed deep in your pockets. Stress is seeping away in your steps. Then suddenly the rubbish pops, and the smile literally drops off your face.

We know litter and fly-tipping poison our environment, pose health risks and sully our image as a pristine tourist destination. But I think they do more than that. If small encounters with rubbish can affect your mood, and large problems can swamp whole areas, I see a very real effect on mental health and community spirit.

Why do people litter? In the spirit of Slow January, let’s not blow our energy on anger and blame (many offenders don’t care, anyway). Instead, why not look for small, personal ways to turn the situation positive?

Some walkers do this simply by taking a few extra pieces of rubbish home. In Wicklow, we bagged three or four bits with the remains of our picnic – including those Christmas lights and that hard drive (the burnt-out car was a little too heavy). And, just as we felt that psychological dip when we first saw the rubbish, so our moods rose when we picked those few pieces up and brought them home to recycle.

Yes, in the global scheme of things, it won’t make much difference. But here’s the thing. Individuals can’t change the world, but they can change their mind.

That little action gave my son and I a good feeling. It made a short stretch of road look briefly spotless, and it got us chatting again. Dirty places are more likely to attract rubbish, we reasoned. Maybe a cleaner spot would be that bit harder for the next person to mindlessly mess up. One small shot of optimism altered our mood. The litter became a lesson.

The world is full of small problems we wish someone would solve. Every now and then, that someone is us.

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