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BelTel leads a good, clean campaign

The Belfast Telegraph has teamed up with Tidy Northern Ireland in a bid to inspire 50,000 people across the region to roll up their sleeves and clean up their local area, writes Mark Hargreaves

CALLED the Big Spring Clean, last year’s campaign saw 26,479 volunteers take part in the campaign donating an impressive 43,038 hours of their own time to collect 27,258 bags of rubbish from towns, countryside and beaches. The weight of the waste collected amounted to a staggering 164 tonnes.

The campaign was first launched in 2009 and has steadily increased in scope since then.

Linda Stewart, the Belfast Telegraph’s environment correspondent, says: “My editor Mike Gilson asked me in late 2009 to start a Big Clean Up campaign, to go out and find ‘grot spots’ or litter covered eyesores and get them cleaned up one way or another.

“We basically had two tactics; either put pressure on the land owner or work with local people to get the areas cleaned up.

“To kick things off, I asked people I knew to come up with an initial 10 sites and then I went out with a photographer and documented them. These were then featured in a double page spread. The first sites were a few beaches, a neglected riverside in urban East Belfast, a grassy area beside the railway line which was being used to dump rubbish and a country lane close to a major housing estate in West Belfast which was a major fly tipping location, even though it was just one mile from the local recycling centre.

“Having identified the sites to be cleaned up, I came up with a number of different approaches on how to handle each site. For example, to tackle the riverside site I worked with a probation team to come up with a squad of helpers; the fly tipping location was handled by the Housing Executive and a digger and I joined up with local community groups to clean up the beaches.

“Once we had completed the original list, we found another 10 eyesores and started working on them.”

This initial project was rolled out on a far greater scale when Stewart began talking to Tidy NI about the wider issues around tacking litter and the decision was taken to call for a return of Tidy Northern Ireland Day in spring which had stopped taking place. This call for action won support from all parties and the decision was taken to run it into a week-long event in the Spring of 2010. This was extended to a full month in April and today it runs from March until May.

Stewart continues: “What began as a modest project back in 2009 has now developed into a major campaign designed to galvanise communities right across Northern Ireland to clean up local areas. The final figures for the latest campaign show that 53,626 people got involved, beating the 50,000 target which is amazing considering the dreadful weather at the start of the campaign.”

The campaign has also received government support with Environment Minister Alex Attwood launching the 2013 campaign. He said: “People here are scaling up their ambition over what they do with waste, how they recycle and there is a growing popular movement towards better waste management. The more that we are clean, green and tidy, the more the quality of our lives is enhanced.

Pictured left: Environment minister Alex Attwood (with spade) launches the 2013 campaign

“Eighteen months ago there wasn’t even a conversation going on about whether to have a beach litter strategy – now we have one.” The Belfast Telegraph has devoted significant column inches to the campaign with regular articles in the run-up to the campaign and then features on local projects.

From the Telegraph’s point of view, it’s been delighted to back the campaign and some of the weird and wonderful actions taken by the local community have provided the paper with some tremendous copy.

Stewart says: “We\'ve had divers picking up litter from the bottom of the Six Mile Water river – and finding a Second World War bomb. In a previous year, some of the children at a clean-up of Kircubbin shore created an artwork – giant footsteps made of stone wading into the sea at Strangford Lough. At another clean-up on the other side of the lough there were more footsteps wading out of the sea.

“We had anglers taking boats out to clean up a river flowing into Lough Erne. Also this year, we had 1,000 girl guides cleaning up the North Down Coastal Path in relays. This year, we also had a clean-up of the entire 18 mile length of the Newry Canal, with 125 people carrying out simultaneous clean-ups in different stretches, organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. As a result of all the glass bottles that were found, Councillor Colin McCusker put forward a motion to Craigavon Council – which was accepted – urging the Environment Minister to bring back the money for bottles scheme.”

The newspaper has also focused on gaining support for the clean-ups with well known figures such as Simon Callow, David Bellamy and Eamonn Holmes. These have been used to particularly good effect in a special section of the Belfast Telegraph website.

Gilson (pictured left) says: “It’s really important for a newspaper like ours to develop and support campaigns like the Big Spring Clean. We’ve got a crucial role to play in the local community and although you cannot quantify the success of the campaign with increased circulation, without a doubt it moves the newspaper closer into the heart of the community.

“Our readers are extremely environment conscious and really care not just about their immediate environment but also the wider Northern Ireland countryside.

“Research shows that the environment is one of the big concerns just below the economy, health and education. Therefore it makes absolute sense to show the community that the Belfast Telegraph is actively involved and engaged in environmental issues and not just reporting on them from the sidelines.”

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