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Monday, December 4, 2023

Showing up and cleaning up — primary pupils step up to our litter challenge

Rory Harrington, a 10-year-old pupil in Beaumont National School in Cork, found a lot of rubbish behind trees in his local park. And he puzzled over a single sock he found, which he thinks was a child’s.

His mum, Sinéad, was surprised at the amount of cans she, Rory and her eight-year-old twin daughters, Tara and Lily, picked up when it was Rory’s weekend to bring the Picker Pack home from school.

An educational initiative delivered by environmental NGO, VOICE, Picker Pals provides participating classrooms with a Picker Pack — children take turns to bring it home at weekends to go litter-picking with their families in their local areas.

Now in its fifth year, more than 70,000 children nationally have taken to the streets with their litter-pickers. It is estimated that in excess of 450 tonnes have been removed from the environment in Ireland since the programme began in 2019. Picker Pals has a big fun element, embracing storytelling and creativity and motivating children to become young environmentalists through the story of the Picker Pals, who live in Pickerupolis, a flying island in the sky. There’s also interactive content, including Picker Pals TV on Youtube.

Picker Pals generated a great buzz when it arrived in Rory’s classroom: “Everyone really wanted it. Some of us were very eager for our turn. One boy in my class actually bought a Picker Pack on Amazon. I was one of the last to get it in my class, but I like to get stuff last.”

Rory, along with his mum and sisters, went out on the three days of the weekend in their high-vis vests and armed with plastic bags and litter-pickers. “They’re long, with a handle, so you don’t have to be bending down and touching the rubbish,” says Sinéad, adding that the whole endeavour “would make you see litter more”.

“You look in places you wouldn’t normally look — like the edges of parks where people hang out. When you look properly you see it. I did find a few full dog poo bags. Since then I’ve spoken to a few dog owners and they swore they wouldn’t do it again. In their defence, they said there aren’t many public bins around. We collected three or four refuse sacks full of rubbish and we could have done the same again. Seeing it all gathered in the bags, the amount shocked me.”

Actively engaging with the litter in their own neighbourhood has a big impact on environmental awareness, says a VOICE spokesperson: “People really start to engage on why it’s there, and where it’s coming from.”

Picker Pals is in every county in Ireland and in more than half of primary schools. This year’s programme launched recently in Cork — with funding from Cork City Council’s anti-dumping initiative, more than 600 children will get the chance to participate.

“Children love it,” says Picker Pals programme administrator Gary Jones, who explains that it’s quite different to the average environmental schools programme.

“The emphasis is on action. There’s environmental theory to back it up, but it’s really an opportunity for children to take the lead in their families, and to lead their parents on a litter-picking adventure in their local community.”

While he acknowledges picking up litter does have a certain ‘yuck’ element, he says you can’t underestimate children’s enthusiasm: “We work primarily with first and second and special classes, when children are big enough to be able to take on more challenging activities. They have a natural wonder and curiosity about the world.”

“Picker Pals gives them an opportunity to take charge of a job, to take on big people stuff — they feel a responsibility they aren’t used to having at this age, and they feel empowered they can make a positive difference in the environment.”

Rory Harrington, a 10-year-old pupil in Beaumont NS
Rory Harrington, a 10-year-old pupil in Beaumont NS

Sylvia Shorten, a teacher of first and second class in Dunmanway Model School, is starting Picker Pals for the third consecutive year with her pupils.

She loves that it involves children looking after their own environment — and that it gets the whole family involved. “Some families treat it as a big family outing and they all get involved. 

She has seen the impact at school: “I never see litter in the playground now unless the wind has blown it in. They’re very aware of any bad litter spots in the locality. They talk about them.”

She has also seen her 22 pupils take very seriously the big focus she has on recycling.

“They’ll come and ask which bin they should put something in,” says Sylvia, who loves the community-wide impact of Picker Pals. On a recent weekend, on separate days, two children each went their litter-pickers to the community playground. “I’m sure people saw them out there — so there’s this visibility in the community, which is very good.”

She likes that Picker Pals is very safety-conscious. “In the pack, there are gloves, sanitiser, high-vis vests. There’s a safety document, advising children/families not to pick up dangerous or unpleasant items, to wash their hands after litter-picking and that children should only go litter-picking with an adult.

“It’s a very positive programme. It’s giving children and families good practice to continue into the future.”

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