Rural litter damaging our agri and tourism sectors

Rural littering is a scourge of the environment here in Northern Ireland.
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At Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, we have been engaging with policymakers in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, along with local councils and other civic groups for some time to explore how we can support rural areas on the issue.

Results from our Cleaner Neighbourhoods 2020/21 Report revealed that 48 per cent of rural roads surveyed across Northern Ireland carry more than the accepted standard amount of litter. Shockingly, the highest level of thrown-away takeaway packaging was uncovered in rural areas, with 41 per cent of the transects studied showing some form of takeaway litter present.

With more and more of the public thankfully enjoying the opportunity to explore and picnic in the great outdoors, it appears that a civic duty has sadly been increasingly neglected in the process: the need to bring home our waste.

Dr Ian Humphreys, Chief Executive Officer, Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.Dr Ian Humphreys, Chief Executive Officer, Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.
Dr Ian Humphreys, Chief Executive Officer, Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.

Rural littering seriously impacts upon our environment and economy. Moreover, it can be dangerous to human health and to livestock and wildlife. If we take the issue of fly-tipping, for instance, we see how it can pollute watercourses and contaminate land, and how this in turn presents an ongoing challenge for farmers as they scramble to protect their assets from contamination or harm.

What’s more, the prevalence of plastic-waste pollution presents a particularly insidious threat to human and environmental health. As we know, discarded single use plastics can take up to a thousand years to degrade. In this time, they slowly leach microplastics into the environment, and from here seep into our drinking water and food chains and threaten the ecosystems that serve as homes to marine and land-based wildlife.

Whilst there are many who enjoy litter picking, the prevention of littering is a shared responsibility for us all. Unfortunately, however, it is our farmers who are regularly left to pick up the bill of illegal dumping. When fly-tipping is committed on a farmer’s land, this litter is inherited as an expensive and time-consuming disposal job for those affected. We can surely agree that this is the last thing farmers need.

Of course, it isn’t just our agricultural sector that’s negatively impacted by rural littering. Tourism contributed over 5 per cent to Northern Ireland’s GDP in 2018. We should all be concerned with the consequences of littering our rural beauty spots, which are a major draw for holidaymakers. Unsightly rural roads and hedgerows discourage tourists from making a return trip and could damage our international reputation as a leading tourist destination.

So, what do we do to tackle the scourge? Fortunately, the solution is very simple: everyone can and should take their litter home when passing through or enjoying rural areas. It really is that easy. But where this first line of defence falters, it is incumbent on us as a society to adopt a proactive and enlightened approach to preserving our rural spaces.

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful’s Live Here Love Here programme, a civic pride campaign, has two initiatives in place to help meet this need. These are the Adopt a Spot scheme, which is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and the Big Spring Clean.

Our annual Big Spring Clean is Northern Ireland’s largest community clean-up campaign, with 800 tonnes of waste lifted to date. This year, it will run from 01 March to 31 May, and is open to individuals, schools, community groups and businesses. I would encourage volunteers across the country to engage by taking part in a clean-up, which they can do by organising their own clean up, joining one that has already been arranged, or by adding a signature to show their support for the campaign.

For those interested in a longer-term project, the Adopt a Spot scheme provides free resources to equip and enable volunteers across Northern Ireland to take on and care for an area that has been neglected.

It’s very easy to get started with both initiatives. For Adopt A Spot, you just download the Live Here Love Here app and register for the programme; in the case of Big Spring Clean, it’s just a matter of signing up for the campaign by visiting

Rural areas are, to be sure, an invaluable resource and should be enjoyed by all. But when we spend time in the countryside, it is imperative to remember a fundamental rule: country roads, take it home.

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