The reader is fed up with finding crappy rubbish in beautiful areas.
The reader is fed up with finding crappy rubbish in beautiful areas. Aisling Brennan

Keep your crappy nappy to yourself: OPINION

IMAGINE a shady park next to a wide tidal inlet in Ballina. There's a small playground, picnic tables and majestic Norfolk pines providing shade. Naturally it's a very popular place to picnic, swim, fish or paddle a canoe. But to say that this place is always beautiful would be rubbish.

Recently, in the park with my dog, I was looking under a tree for a stick to throw for him when I found an item that filled me with despair for humankind - a used, disposable nappy. It was the third I'd come across in a month. It was neatly wrapped, its stickers (mostly) hiding the contents. It had been carefully placed behind a bush, near the tree trunk.

What was this parent thinking - or not thinking? How is it possible after 29 years of Do the Right Thing anti-litter campaigns, for people to be still so careless of their environment?

Three questions occurred to me: why did they not feel just enough guilt to propel them the 15 metres to the rubbish bin, what did they think would happen to it, and why did they not see that such an item is an ugly anomaly in the natural environment?

Later that day, while walking on the tidal sand-flats, I saw many families enjoying the water - fishing or swimming in the channel - which pushed the incident of the nappy to the back of my mind - at least until I looked down and saw a pile of dog poo on the sand. My crappy day was now even crappier.

On a windy day in the park there's often other rubbish too. Chip packets, lolly wrappers, plastic bags and cups all go flying about - sometimes floating into the water.

People either don't notice, or don't care that their rubbish has been scattered far and wide. Do they assume that others will pick it up? Well some of us do pick it up - many of us - but not without resentment. I'd really like to shove it up their exhaust pipes....but I'd probably get arrested.

Then there are the cigarette butts - of which there are an estimated 7 billion dropped every year in Australia. I've never been able to understand why smokers think that a cigarette butt is not litter. What do they think the filter does? It traps toxic chemicals so that they don't go into the lungs. The chemicals are soluble, so if you drop butts on a tidal sandflat those chemicals will leach into the soil or sand. If dropped on a street they'll probably find their way to the ocean via a stormwater drain.

In my vindictive daydreams I visualise a butt-dropper swimming in the ocean and suddenly finding a butt in their mouth.

Each time I pick up a disposable nappy I wonder why 95% of Australian parents are using them when they're creating an environmental catastrophe. About 2 billion go into landfill in Australia every year....or are dropped in parks. Americans use more than 27 billion nappies each year, which is enough waste to stretch to the moon and back nine times. If you try to imagine the number of nappies being thrown out worldwide, the mind boggles.

It's estimated that disposable nappies take about 500 years to decompose.

And if this isn't enough to convince parents to use washable nappies, the financial cost of disposables from birth to toilet training averages around $2000 per child. You can buy 3 dozen towelling nappies for $54.

Back in the park I gingerly picked up the abandoned nappy and carried it to the glaringly obvious red Council bin. I disposed of the dog poo too, knowing that if chose to swim there later when the tide had picked it up, I wouldn't come face to face with that particular turd - or squish it between my toes.

I don't want a medal for this; I want litterers to gain awareness of their part in keeping the natural environment natural - an awareness that they're part of a community of people who enjoy the park. We have so much freedom in this country, but with freedom comes responsibility. If we don't act in the best interests of our community (and that includes supporting the natural environment) then we don't deserve our freedom.

In my fed-up moments I feel like erecting signs all around our park, reading, for example, The rubbish bin is 20 metres that way you moron! Or Hey slacko dog-owner, I hope you step in your own dog's excrement! But my much more reasonable friends tell me that it would do no good.

It would be interesting to conduct an experiment during busy park-use periods, say in January: leave all the rubbish there and see what happens. Would people start complaining that the park was in a disgusting state? Would they consider it to be someone else's responsibility?

What can be done to raise people's awareness about littering? I think that even Ian Kiernan would agree that Do the Right Thing is never going to reach everyone. Some will always be too ignorant to know or care what 'the right thing' might be.

So it's up to local Councils to erect polite signs in all the parks, that point out the location of the bins and warn of the probability of large on-the-spot fines - perhaps even adding a You are Here locator with a dotted path to the bin. For a month or two, let the word spread. Then if that hasn't worked, get the rangers in the parks on weekends, issuing the fines. Litterers would learn that environmental carelessness is very expensive.