Estonia Leading a World Cleanup Day — Staying Stubborn and Uniting People29.03.2017
Text by Helena Läks / Life in Estonia, photo by Let's Do It!
‘No country stands alone,’ goes the refrain of one of the most popular Estonian songs of the last century. The song, written in 1987 by Alo Mattiisen and Jüri Leesment, was born as part of the resistance to the opening of large phosphorite mines in Estonia’s Virumaa region, which turned out to be a success and encouraged and motivated Estonian masses to ditch the fear of the Soviet regime. Not only that: it also gave back faith to Estonians in the power of collective action carried out by consenting individuals (as opposed to the regime-imposed collectivism). You have probably read or heard that we, Estonians, sang ourselves free; well, it wasn’t all that simple, but indeed – this regained faith brought the whole nation together to sing for a better tomorrow and a country free of foreign oppression. So you might see why Estonians find their song festivals pretty epic (they are massive!), and by epic, amongst other things, I mean something you don’t hastily compare other things to. Now let me introduce you to Let’s Do It! World – a civic-led mass movement born in Estonia in 2008 and epic enough to be compared to our song festivals. To date, Let’s Do It! has engaged over 100 countries and about 17 million people to clean up illegal waste, making it one of the fastest growing environmental movements in the world. And the ambition doesn’t stop here: the movement has scheduled World Cleanup Day for September 15th, 2018, planning to engage people in 150 countries to organize massive cleanups on the same day.
Not an Environmental Movement
It is no news that illegal littering is a worldwide problem. In 2007, a small group of people approached tech entrepreneur Rainer Nõlvak, introducing their idea to solve Estonia’s illegal waste problem in about five years with the help of volunteers. Nõlvak was very much aware of the problem: ‘I’m a solitary type of a guy and I like to wander around in the forest. At some point I started noticing that I’m no longer alone in the woods – there was a remarkable amount of car tires, dressers and plastic bags. This combination felt violent. I thought that I should make one effort to change this – if this doesn’t help, I guess I have to move to Mars.’ He agreed the problem needed to be tackled, but his response blew everyone away: ‘Stop, we will do it, but we will do it in just one day!’
And they did it. Estonia was cleaned in just five hours. ‘True, something like this had never been done before and at the beginning we had no idea, how to do it. However, we were certain this can be done,’ Nõlvak recalls. After all, talgud, a form of communal work which brought voluntary helpers together to get some bigger farm works done, was once hugely popular among Estonians.
In order to clean up about 10 000 tons of waste, 40 000 helping hands were needed. However, as in most countries, waste management laws would normally not allow volunteers to handle waste. Nõlvak admits: ‘Yes, 50 000 people effectively broke the law about handling waste. We could have been arrested but I told the ministry: “If you don’t want to help, we can leave all the collected rubbish in bags outside your building”.’ The ministries and municipalities were convinced, quite soon becoming one of the biggest partners of the action.
Altogether more than 500 official partners were engaged. There were competitors working side by side, not making a fuss about the fact that their rivals were also involved. ‘We were told that at some point we were like the mafia – nobody would say “no” to us,’ Nõlvak says.
The news about Let’s Do It! went viral and circled the world. ‘After the first cleanup event, we put a video up on Youtube with a good and special energy. People around the world started writing to us, asking if they could clean up their countries too. We told them of course!’ Eva Truuverk, one of the idea’s originators, recalls. The global request resulted in a new project called World Cleanup 2012, an initiative that called all the countries in the world to clean up within one year. The people who started the Let’s Do It! action in Estonia, undertook a new challenge to keep Let’s Do It! World going. By the end of 2012, the network had grown to 96 countries. Currently Slovenia holds the participation record in Let’s Do It! – almost 14 percent of the entire population participated in the cleanup day. That was just the start, because the same initiating group now leads Slovenia towards Zero Waste, a systematic change that will reduce production of trash close to nothing. According to Zero Waste Europe, the world’s first Zero Waste capital city will most likely be Ljubljana. The Let’s Do It! initiative has started a long-term change and has grown into much more than just one event celebrating volunteering.
As Let’s Do It! is fighting with the planet’s trash problem, it makes sense that it is often referred to as an environmental movement. Rainer Nõlvak somewhat disagrees: ‘Let’s Do It! is not an environmental movement. We are about changing the behaviour of people.’ The latter is essential for reaching the point where it’s possible to keep the world cleanafter the clean-ups. This means a lot of educating, lobbying, programming, (re)designing, networking… On the road towards that goal, Let’s Do It! refrains from shaming and shocking, believing in empowering instead, using waste mapping data, engaging professionals of various fields and giving a platform for people to share their experiences.
World Cleanup Day — Celebrating Humanity
The event for World Cleanup Day will be exceptional for two reasons. For one, for the first time in history, all the world’s trash will be visualized on one global world waste map and secondly, 5 percent of every community is called to participate in cleaning it up.
‘The problem here is that people are adapting. We are good at that. As we speak, billions of us are adapting to life in trash. Once they adapt, they forget about clean nature. They don’t dare to dream of clean. Many of us have already forgotten, perhaps. To change all that, we don’t have too much time,’ Rainer Nõlvak said at Let’s Do It!’s Clean World Conference in Tallinn this January. Breaking the destructive habits and creating better ones only gets harder, so it’s important to act asap. World Cleanup Day takes place on September 15th, 2018 – why not earlier?
The Let’s Do It! model, briefly, is made out of four ingredients: team building, cooperation with a wide range of partners, waste mapping and communication. Even though the model itself was already established back in 2008, its application throughout the entire network takes time. From that standpoint, the 15th of September 2018 is approaching very quickly.
To make a global event with such an ambition happen, there is a need for a strong global partnership between various networks, NGOs, as well as people who want to stop the waste pollution and throw-away mind-set. Let’s Do It! World is an accredited member of the United Nations Environment Programme, working closely with Zero Waste Europe, the International Solid Waste Association, JCI and many others. It is just a start and Let’s Do It! activists are actively looking for new partners around the world.
E-state and World’s Waste
One of the main focuses this year is technology: to fully understand the scope of the trash problem before the big World Cleanup Day, the entire world’s waste needs to be mapped, using modern technology and volunteers for locating and mapping the trash. The software for creating the ugliest map ever will be released around autumn 2017.
Estonia, the birthplace of many technology startups like Skype and Transferwise, offering e-Residency to foreigners who want avoid bureaucracy and use Estonia’s famous e-services, is a suitable place to create this kind of a technical solution. This solution could be used by municipalities, companies, other NGOs and many others. ‘To date, there’s no clear understanding of how much illegal waste is out there. All we know is that waste pileup has already created alarming problems with the spread of diseases, floods, pollution of drinking water, killing of fish, birds and animals, and even people,’ comments Eva Truuverk.
Communication activities are planned mainly for 2018: this is when the whole world will be invited to join in World Cleanup Day and take real action.
‘The plan is to start cleaning up in Japan at 10AM, then move around the world with the sun. The last place to clean up is Hawaii. For 2019, the plan is to introduce the idea of “keep it clean” to potential partners – governments, corporations, citizens – so that other world cleanup days won’t be necessary any more,’ explains Eva Truuverk.
A lot is going on in the world right now, the majority of it rather negative. During these difficult times, humankind could use something positive and downright epic to feel united. Why not give Let’s Do It!, this huge movement, with its stubborn Estonian roots, fighting against nothing and no one except trash, a chance to bring us all together. After all, “No country stands alone”.