It’s just before 3pm on a Tuesday.

The first of two green vans beeps as it reverses into the yard of the Sunflower Recycling Project on North Strand.

Under the arch of a railway bridge, two men sort through a small pile of cardboard. They flatten it, then stack it into a much larger pile.

Bernie Walsh, founder of the Sunflower Recycling Centre, calls the small green vans “pickaroons”. They have two sliding hatches on each side for waste their drivers search for on the streets around here.

Under the umbrella of the recycling centre, Walsh is also helping to run the Green Ribbon Project, which works directly with local residents on small environmental projects to raise awareness of environmental issues and help maintain the neighbourhood.

The idea grew out of a community-leadership course at Maynooth University. There’s two parts to it, says Walsh: planting and putting plant boxes throughout the north inner-city to brighten the area, and the “pickaroons”.

The pickaroons pick up the loose litter the council vans miss, or “where to corporation van doesn’t get to”, she says.

Most importantly, however, the project is about the local community.

A Litter Blackspot

The north inner-city is “seriously littered”, according to the Irish Business Against Litter 2018 report. It came last of 40 areas surveyed.

Some of the streets, the report says, “weren’t just littered but suffered from dumping, on a large scale – piles of black sacks and plastic bags of rubbish.”

The report points to a “persistent litter presence” on streets such as Oriel Street, Rutland Street and North Circular Road. CCTV wasn’t deterring people from illegally dumping waste on Sherrard Street Lower, it said.

“Sherrard Street needs to be done every day as it’s an awful bad street. What happens then is the seagulls come and tear the bags apart,” says Walsh, who started Sunflower Recycling about 23 years ago.

Sherrard Street falls along Liam FitzGerald’s daily circuit in a pickaroon. “We could do that street in an hour and say in another hour’s time, the corporation could come up and see another bag dragged around and we’d be only after doing it,” he says.

Photo by Sean Finnan

FitzGerald and Mark Haid pop out of the first of the green vans that chugged back into the yard. They both work 30 hours a week with the Green Ribbon Project. They can’t handle black bags, as those fall under Dublin City Council workers’ remit.

Instead, they picks up the loose waste that the council’s sweeping vans might miss or sweep up onto the footpaths.

“We are making a difference now, we are,” says Haid, with a touch of pride in his voice. “I can see it myself now.”

He says other people in the vicinity notice the good work they do too and are full of praise.

“They’re going down the street and they’re like the Lord Mayor,” says Walsh. “They’re a team of Alfie Byrnes,” she says, referencing the infamously popular former Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Compare council figures for the number of streets inspected in the North Central Area in the first 11 months of last year, and the year before, and there seems to have been a significant drop.

Between January and November 2017, the council wardens in that area inspected 2,432 streets, collected 6,147 bags, and issued 226 fines, figures show.

Meanwhile, between January and November 2018, the council wardens inspected 1,799 streets, collected 4,649 bags, and issued 183 fines.

Why the significant drop? Dublin City Council hasn’t responded yet to queries about that.

Independent Councillor Christy Burke says the council’s public-domain and waste-management services are working hard. “They are trying their utmost and they have upped the ante over the past couple of months.”

But, Burke says, he wants more litter wardens out on the streets as a deterrent.

Nurturing Community

The Green Ribbon Project is one of the initiatives sparked by the Mulvey Report, the plan to regenerate the north-east inner-city amid serious gang-related violence.

The Department for Rural and Community Development gave €143,918 to help fund it. The van drivers are employed through the Social Employment Programme on a 30-hour week, funded by the same department.

Walsh says it’s been a great success so far.

Part of the project’s mission, as set out in the Mulvey Report, is to work with the council and develop “initiatives with resident associations and community organisations to take an active role in owning and maintaining these improved areas”.

Installing planting boxes throughout the inner-city is a great excuse to get talking to local residents, and seeing what they want and think, says Walsh.

In her portacabin in the recycling yard just behind Marino College, Walsh points at a large map on the wall.

It shows part of the north inner-city, the area they cover, surrounded in red marker. Every house with a planter box has been given a green mark on the map. Hundreds so far, says Walsh.

“Because of the gangland stuff, people stopped coming outside their door, they stopped engaging,” says Walsh.

“They were afraid people were watching them or they were seeing what was going on,” she says. “Now you have a reason to come out.”

Rebuilding trust within the community is a marker of success, says Walsh. They hand over responsibility for the planter boxes in some areas, giving people a chance to take a hands-on role in looking after their streets.

“There was a bit of negativity at the start from some people,” says Walsh.

She imitates a token begrudger: “Ah, that’ll never work down there. They’ll wreck them boxes. Ah, they’re going to rob them.”

But only two window boxes have been stolen since the project started. One theft was probably due to one of the residents complaining about the local kids, says Walsh.

They’re planning to roll out more educational programmes this year on household waste and waste disposal, says Walsh, to show people that small environmental impacts are in residents’ hands.

“What we’d be hoping to is say to people is, well, if you plant a few more flowers, you’re keeping around a few more bees. If you have a little less paving, you’ll have more grass and more insects,” says Walsh.

The kids are great, she says. It’s the adults that need reminding.

Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at

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