Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Easy solution to a stinking, messy issue

How do you stop people leaving litter in parks? Taking the rubbish bins away can work.

Seagulls pounce on discarded food and spread the mess further. Photo / Babiche Martens
Seagulls pounce on discarded food and spread the mess further. Photo / Babiche Martens

Some mornings were worse than others. Sundays were the worst. In the parking area by the little playground across the street, the detritus of late-night fast-food feasts might cover an area the size of a tennis court.

Occasionally it would be deposited - the word "neatly" springs to mind, but I just can't bring myself to use it in the same sentence as "litter" - in a pile that would have been just below the diner's car door. But most would be cast in the general direction of the rubbish bin, which in any case was often overflowing.

It was a seagull's idea of heaven, of course. From far and wide they came, to worry at chicken bones or cold chips. Each shrieking, flapping dispute would extend the field of litter a little wider.

Not that Murphy made matters any easier. One Sunday morning, as I gathered up the strewn garbage in a black rubbish bag, I was astonished to see him come out of his house two doors up, stroll across the road and, cheerily bidding me good morning, pop a shopping bag full of household waste into the litter bin.

"Murphy," I said (it's not his real name but it's what everybody's called him since he emigrated from Belfast shortly after the invention of sea travel). "Murphy", I said, "you're not supposed to put household rubbish in the litter bin."

"Ah", he said, chewing his words extravagantly to stop his false teeth from falling out, "sure and I only do it when it's something smelly, like fish".

I pointed to the large black-backed gull staring balefully at me and waiting for me to bugger off. "That's why the seagulls are all over it," I said. "They come for the fish."

"Ah", he said, a triumphant gleam in his eye as he prepared to deliver the line that would win the argument, "but that's not my problem".

What with Murphy and the late-night burger-munchers, I certainly had a problem. I had been talking to the council for some months about emptying the bin more frequently or doubling its size but this latest development put a new complexion on things.

A helpful council officer offered to have a word with the Irishman - threats of fines were mentioned - but, knowing his predilection for belligerence towards authority, I told her she'd be wasting her time. "He'll deny everything," I said. "If you find an envelope with his name on it in the rubbish, he'll say it must have blown in there."

That's when I remembered that, some time last century, the Auckland Regional Council resolved to remove all the litter bins from regional parks. The idea, counter-intuitive though it may be, is that if you give people nowhere to deposit their litter legally, they are less likely to leave it illegally.

"It might work," I suggested. Somewhat to my astonishment, she agreed.

I helped her write a leaflet, which I dropped off to neighbourhood letterboxes. The bin disappeared within 48 hours.

Quite what Murphy thought, I've no idea. Certainly he never mentioned it when I invited him over for Christmas drinks. I do notice that he's putting his wheelie-bin out each Wednesday.

What's better, the rubbish has almost completely disappeared. We've been over there a couple of greasy Sunday mornings, but that's just part of adopting your neighbourhood, it seems to me.

The seagulls, perhaps missing Murphy's fish scraps, don't come around any more. And the absence of a rubbish bin means that litterbugs no longer have anything to take no notice of.

•The reaction to last week's column about Shiu Narayan, who went into debt to cover the damage to two cars his father, paralysed by a sudden stroke, had rear-ended, was prolific.

It was also remarkable for being pretty evenly split between those who admired him and those who defended his insurer's refusal to pay out for the third parties' losses.

For the record, I never saw it as a story about an insurance dispute. What touched me was that Narayan had seen his responsibility as being dictated not by law but by his sense of honour. The damage to his car was covered, remember. He wasn't complaining about being ill-treated.

Those who reacted by vowing to take their insurance business elsewhere rather missed the point, it seems to me. The question Narayan's story raised for me was: which of us, in his position, would have done the same thing? I cannot say I would have.

- NZ Herald

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