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This is why every cleanup is more than just one cleanup
May 5, 2021
Sweeping changes, like the plastic waste problem, can begin with a group of ordinary people setting out to clean their local area. Even individuals can make a difference.

Reducing plastic waste will involve everyone from global corporations to households. Individuals are going above and beyond, galvanising their communities to tackle the plastic waste challenge by organising cleanups.

Cleanups can have a much more lasting and widespread impact than temporary reductions in local litter. They can become movements to empower others—from individuals to governments—to help our environment, offer opportunities for community bonding and education, and create a green, clean atmosphere which encourages communities to take pride and interest in their environment. It’s the flipside of the broken windows theory that suggests that small visible signs of disrepair encourage further carelessness. When you fix the windows, the neighbourhood improves; and the same goes for removing litter.

Local movements can go global

sand full of waste

In 2008, a group of Estonians, invoking the spirit of talgud (communal work), set a goal to “cleanup the entire country in just five hours”. Sharing their plans online, they encouraged 50,000 volunteers to clear up 10,000 tons of rubbish on a single day in May 2008. Communities were brought together with industry and public authorities to make this happen.

Soon, the organisers were contacted by people from dozens of other countries who had seen videos of the cleanup and were inspired to organise their own—the community effort has now become a global movement called Let’s Do It! World. In 2019, more than 20 million people joined in with the biggest single cleanup day ever.

The movement has not just scaled up, it is also expanding beyond litter collection. Organisers are taking country-specific approaches: for instance, in Indonesia the cleanup is coupled with community education on segregating waste (local leader Agustina Iskander told media 65 per cent of waste is wrongly segregated). The Slovenian branch, which mobilised nearly 14 per cent of the population to partake in 2010, is now spearheading the country’s zero-waste movement with success—Slovenia is now the first European country with a zero-waste capital.

The art and artistry of cleaning up

The UK’s first national river cleanup started with one woman. London-based artist Maria Arceo spent a year clearing plastic waste from more than 40 foreshore beaches along the River Thames with volunteers. She incorporated this waste into an art installation (‘Future Dust’), which took the form of a giant footprint to represent the human mark left on marine environments. Future Dust was displayed at locations along the Thames through September 2017, and coincided with a week-long public workshop at London’s Somerset House to explore the history, impact, and value of plastics.

Arceo’s work inspired a group of environmental organisations—such as Thames21 and the Marine Conservation Society—to join forces to organise and promote the UK’s first national cleanup in October 2017. Dozens of community events were registered, spanning from Cumbria to Cornwall, with passionate volunteers clearing plastic waste from rivers and river banks to prevent it washing out to sea.

lady standing by beach side

Big change can start small

Clearing the environment—a pillar of the effort to end plastic waste—takes many forms and involves everyone from individuals to intergovernmental organisations. However, some of the most inspiring, impactful, and innovative approaches start with individuals and snowball to motivate change by states and companies on a worldwide scale.

Join us in our Clean4Change movement, a campaign powered by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, and start your cleanup journey today!