Today’s bog is by Ian Humphreys, CEO of Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.
For decades Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful has been championing the often disparaged subject of litter. But now, through research and TV shows such as Blue Planet II, the ramifications of our convenience and throwaway lifestyles are being fully understood. Even something as simple as plastic pollution is decimating wildlife, particularly at sea, and as an oil-based product that is often burned for energy when discarded, is contributing to climate breakdown. And that plastic, as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, has now entered the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Scary stuff!
What follows explores what Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful is doing about plastics.
We have just completed surveys to find out how much plastic litter is out there, who produced it and how much it costs to pick up and dispose of. Needless to say there is a lot! And we have researched what is stopping people reducing consumption of single use plastics.
The findings? People are very confused around what constitutes a single use plastic and by the cacophony of voices all offering different solutions to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. They need clarity and simplicity for any action. They might not want to have to read the small print on every item they pick up, but would happily reference a list of shops where they will pick up the right things!
We also know most people are put off by the extreme actions of environmentalists, making it harder for them to engage with us in normalising better behaviours. We need to create a new paradigm where people don’t think this means becoming a torch bearer in sack cloth.
And for high street businesses we know that the cost of alternative materials is prohibitively expensive making the switch from plastic to card or biodegradable products highly unlikely right now. That said, our pilots of new materials have been widely welcomed by the vendor and public alike. Bold branding means composters can easily tell our materials are ok.
For young people we have introduced a new Eco-Schools Marine Topic but the real transformation needs to take place in the way we educate people to grow leaders who can communicate effectively, know how to collaborate, can think critically and work creatively to reach new solutions.
In Northern Ireland, with a population of just 1.8m people, the environmental sector needs to combine its fragmented efforts to bring about the public and political changes that we need. As I heard at the NAAEE’s 2018 Environmental Education Conference in Spokane, we need the full constellation of organisations working together to give scale, not individual stars.
As the quality of the places we live in deteriorates, people in all walks of life are beginning to ask “what can I do? Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful believes that people need support now to establish new societal norms and values that rely less on using ‘stuff’ for happiness and more on showing responsibility, kindness and compassion, for each other and for all of nature, that deep down we know is right.