Home. A beautiful four-letter word, even when touching down from holiday.

My children and I returned from Europe on Saturday, swinging from 30C temperatures and long days to 5C mornings and fewer hours of daylight.

"New Zealand. Yay!" said Master 12 as we touched down at Auckland airport.

Exactly.

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We loved our time away, meeting new friends, basking in the warm glow of summer and the wonder of newness. And we're happy to be home.

The last place we visited was Puglia, the heel of Southern Italy. It captivated with centuries-old conical-roofed houses; whitewashed villages and ancient roads over which pilgrims trekked to Jerusalem. But every paradise has its price, and one drawback is the astounding amount of rubbish lining streets and littering beaches. Sitting below endless stretches of hand-built stone walls are endless stretches of rubbish - kilometres of paper, plastic, aluminium and glass.

"You can't go barefoot here," said an Italian friend, as Miss 14 shed her shoes to explore a rocky beach. I looked down – glass shards glinted in the sun, spread wide across the bay. I walked to the water's edge, where I removed my jandals and waded in. A jagged bit of green glass ebbed and flowed in the aqua sea around my feet. Attempts to grab it failed.

Back home, I'm looking more closely at the ground, noticing aside from the odd bottle or takeaway wrapper, we're adhering to the Tidy Kiwi culture forged over decades, reinforced by education and cultural norms.

It wasn't always this way – locals who were around in the 60s will tell you it used to be common to toss takeaways from the car window. Today, we bemoan litterbugs and spend hours clearing beaches careless idiots have used as dumping grounds, hauling away trailer loads of rubbish. Community groups wanting to arrange litter clean-ups can get free bags, gloves and disposal of collected waste through Council.

All this makes me wonder how Italians - the people who birthed ballet, the Jacuzzi spa, Montessori education, motorways, nuclear reactors, opera, radio, the shopping centre, typewriters and perhaps, most importantly, the espresso machine (to name a few), can't incentivise, fine and shame people into binning trash.

We must be as diligent in clearing pollution we can't see as rubbish we can. Tourists will tell their compatriots back home whether our place appears clean and green, but they can't tell by looking whether our rivers and lakes are fit or fouled.

Kiwis wouldn't allow a mass of floating plastic bags and toothbrushes to taint a river like the Wairoa, and we shouldn't stand for the fact government data shows most rivers and lakes are unswimmable. We can't see urine from 10 million cattle (3.6 million beef/6.5 million dairy in 2017), nor can we pluck out E. Coli or campylobacter and deposit them at the tip. An article in The Economist late last year said New Zealanders are three times as likely to fall ill from campylobacter than Australians or Canadians.

Farmers have fenced thousands of kilometres of rivers to prevent livestock from wading in; some have planted trees along waterways to curb erosion. The National Party last year attempted to burnish the image of Aotearoa's lakes and rivers by moving goal posts, lowering pollution standards, something scientists said would make waterways cleaner only on paper.

The new Labour/coalition Government has pledged to improve water quality in meaningful ways, such as curbing dairy farming intensification. Statistics New Zealand on Tuesday announced it'll start measuring the nation's success using not only economic indicators, but a new framework which could include measures such as environmental health.

It's a start, but miles from Labour's election pledge to make all rivers and lakes swimmable. It's also much tougher than joining a neighbourhood or beach clean-up.

Let's tidy pollution we can see – and that which we can't. I'll continue popping other people's cans and wrappers into bins. It's up to the collective – ratepayers, politicians, farmers and others in industry – to return our waterways to places in which we can dunk ourselves and our children without fear someone will get sick.

Maybe someday I'll emulate (on a smaller scale) one of my favourite writers, humorist David Sedaris. He spends up to five hours each day picking up fast food containers and cigarette butts near his home in England.

I'll bring the custom further south, removing roadside rubbish in Puglia. Afterwards, I'll devour a plate of orecchiette pasta with pesto and Parmesan while sipping Primitivo – a bold, red wine. Because caring for the earth is something to celebrate, no matter where on the planet we practice our craft.