Sue Bellinger re-imagine National Cleanup Week

One of the most sustainable activities that I’ve come across is ‘cleanups’.  We do them over and over again, in the same places and the same way.  Come September we’ll ‘celebrate’ National Cleanup Week.  Hordes of community members, schoolchildren and corporate employees will be urged to ‘celebrate’ and participate.  Kitted out with gloves, wellies and garbage bags, t-shirts and peaks emblazoned with sponsor’s logo and cleanup slogans, they’ll take to our streets, empty spaces, parks, neighbourhoods and rivers.

They’ll pick up plastic bottles and bags, cans and stompies, nappies and tyres, fast food containers and bottles, boxes and paper, and a host of unmentionables.  They’ll sweat and they’ll swear that they’ll never do another cleanup.  And at the end of the day the sponsors might dish out sweets and chips, cold drinks in bottles or cans, fast food in polystyrene containers.  Often no bins or bags are provided for the resulting waste, and the cleaner-upperer’s become litterers.

Participants take their sponsored apparel and their weary bones home at the end of the day, claiming that they ‘celebrated’ National Cleanup Week.  And sponsors place another tick against their ‘community involvement’ list.
Don’t get me wrong – right now the cleanups are necessary and I applaud all those worthy volunteers.  But isn’t our approach a bit short-sighted!

How could we really CELEBRATE National Cleanup Week?  Imagine not having to clean up, for starters? We need to start preparing now – with awareness-raising about behaviours that cause litter.  About purchases that result in waste and litter.  Reminding last year’s participants that cleaning-up was an eye-opener, sure, but shouldn’t need repeating.  We’ve already seen how great our surroundings can look – and we aim to keep them that way.  Not for us cleanups merely to show the rest of the world how we CAN look.  Oh no, we’re after cleaner surroundings FOR US.

Imagine celebrating National Cleanup Week when there‘s nothing to clean up.  It will become a day of real celebration.

What if we set ourselves a goal of improved health?  Improved health requires improved nutrition, cleaner air, water and surroundings, and adequate exercise.   Let’s educate ourselves and others about how to obtain good nutrition – certainly not from chip packets, sweets or sugary, coloured cold drinks.  Seeking good nutrition means seeking fresh fruit and veg over expensive, processed ‘treats’.

If good health is our goal, we can seek to grow our own produce.  We can feed the soil with compost made from fruit and veg peelings and other organic matter, so eliminating the odours and mess that result from dumped food waste.  We can nurture earthworms to munch their way through the organic matters.  And all of this activity constitutes a good dollop of healthy exercise in the open air.  Everyone in the family can do their bit in the garden.  Improved family-time can result.  We’ll also have more money in our own pockets when we’re growing real food for ourselves and not buying ‘junk foods’ from shops.

Reduced consumption of chips, sweets, cold drinks etc. means less packaging waste and less litter.  Less litter means cleaner surroundings and cleaner storm water drains and waterways.  These mean less money having to be spent by authorities on cleaning up.  More money in the authorities’ coffers means more funds available for more important issues – housing, health, crime prevention, education, etc.  (The DEAT – Department of Environment and Tourism’s State of Environment Report for 1999 states that we collectively generate 42 million m3 of general waste p.a. in South Africa – closer to the quantity produced per capita in developed countries like the UK than in developing countries like Nepal.  One can hardly imagine the millions of Rands that it takes to collect, cleanup and dispose of that volume.  And these statistics relate to waste generation 10 years ago, with our consumption and littering having escalated drastically in the intervening period.)

Imagine a new-style National Cleanup Week – celebrating good nutrition and good health, cleaner air and water.  We could serve healthy home-grown food produced by our own labours, topped off with fresh fruit drinks – food and drink which don’t contribute to litter but do contribute to good health and good cheer.  We’d have singing and dancing, games and poetry, mime and rhyme. Let’s start now – some ideas for how to get going:

  • Schools can tackle tuck-shop trash by switching focus gradually to serving healthy, nutritious foods only – served in compostable paper.  An audit of what’s currently on offer in the tuck-shop, and the litter that it causes, will point the way to go.
  • Participants in this year’s cleanups can take the following message to sponsors – prevention is better and much more fun than cure.  Seek their support to change habits in your community so that next year your ‘celebration’ can be altogether different to this year’s.  The new-style celebration will celebrate no labour and no cleanup costs – but rather improved health, clean surroundings and a reduced community footprint.

Which way will you choose to ‘celebrate?’  The ‘old’ way perhaps for this year – but make sure that your organization/ school/ community knows that next year National Cleanup Week will be something completely different.  It’s up to us to make it that way! (Download a copy of this article.)

*National Cleanup Week is the 14th – 19th of September 2009.

Sue Bellinger


3 responses to “Sue Bellinger re-imagine National Cleanup Week

  1. Pierre-Louis

    Very good and necessary. But this requires a revolution and/or a catastrophe to enforce a 180 degree change in mentality, isn’t it ?



  2. Project 90 by 2030

    Dear Pierre-Louis,

    It absolutely requires us to engage 100% in shifting our mindsets and a revolution indeed! It sounds like you are up for that revolution – welcome!

  3. 🙂

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