On North Richmond Street on a recent Thursday afternoon, Kuba O’Conluain reaches through blue railings with a litter picker, clasps a crisp packet, and then pops it in a paper bag.
“We are cleaning up rubbish,” says Kuba, aged six, smiling. “Because it’s good for the world.”
He is dressed in a leather trapper hat, with fur down the sides.
It would be great if all children helped pick up plastic rubbish, he says, through the screen on a video call. “Because it kills the animals in the ocean.”
“I found one!” says his three-year-old sister Maya Ni Chonluain, wrapped up in a woolly hat and a navy coat dotted with tiny white stars.
She clasps a full-size noodle packet in the litter picker and, with surprising dexterity, puts it in the rubbish bag.
Kuba and Maya treat picking up the rubbish like a game or competition. Within minutes, they’ve cleaned the street.
They gathered a plastic water bottle, a Bulmers can, a pizza box, plastic packaging and bags, and several disposable face masks.
Their grandfather Kevin Flanagan regularly brings them out to clean the streets when they visit him at his home in Drumcondra, he says.
There’s so much rubbish strewn around and how waste is collected – in single-use plastic bags that are often ripped open by seagulls – is part of the problem, he says.
“It seems really weird that we give out about the seagulls when we have turned them into foragers,” he says. “They see the yellow plastic bags and it’s take-away time. McDonalds, come and get it.”
Kuba and Maya have made artwork from some of the rubbish they’ve collected.
Says Kuba: “A top of a can and I turned into a thing that the light could shine on. It made it lovely.”
They made a decoration with the top you can pull off a can of beans, he says.
Discarded CDs became Christmas decorations, which they hung on the Christmas tree at the Mansion House, says Flanagan.
Maya picks up a large bone with the litter picker and holds it up to show to Flanagan before placing it in the rubbish bag. “At least that is recyclable,” says Flanagan.
Flanagan worries about the planet that his grandchildren will inherit, he says. “They will still be around when everything melts. I’d like them to have a future.”
Kuba and Maya have seen the new David Attenborough films, he says, and they are concerned about the survival of the planet too.
“It’s really grim,” he says. “We’ve only got 80 years left.”
The solution according to Kuba: “Stop throwing rubbish around and stop throwing plastic around.”
Binning the Bags
Flanagan says that one major cause of litter strewn around Drumcondra is the way rubbish is collected. Homes on many streets in the area put out their rubbish in plastic bags.
The bags are usually left out overnight for early-morning collection and are regularly ripped open by seagulls, spreading household waste all over the streets, he says.
“You can hardly blame them,” he says, of the gulls.
The bags contain food waste too, which might attract rodents, he says.
Flanagan has asked his local councillors why bags are still used, he says.
Houses in Dublin that can accommodate them should always have wheelie bins, according to council by-laws. But if people don’t have space to store bins, they can use bags instead, says a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
Elsewhere in the city, residents previously argued against a push to get them to use wheelie bins, saying that they couldn’t accommodate them or that they didn’t want to bring them out through the house.
Residents on a neighbouring street, one similar in size and design to his, have bins, says Flanagan.
He would rather take a bin through the house than a bag, he says. “A wheelie bin doesn’t leak.”
Flanagan says that he is trying to teach his grandchildren to avoid plastic where possible and doesn’t think the bags are a sustainable solution. “It is really the morality of using single-use plastic.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that plastic bag collection is only permitted in areas where people have restricted outdoor space.
But if a householder can accommodate a wheelie bin they can ask the waste collection company for one.
“There is no restriction on households using wheeled bins in these areas where their property can accommodate the storage of wheeled bins,” says the spokesperson.
The council plans to review the streets in the city to work out whether some areas that are currently using bags can accommodate bins, says the spokesperson.
“Dublin City Council is also investigating whether there is alternatives to the use of plastic bags for the presentation of waste,” they said.