Cleanups: the gateway to a zero waste community

by Seema Prabhu, Trash Hero World’s Programme Director

February 19, 2021 at 04:23:50 AM

The Trash Hero movement shows how cleaning public spaces can lead to wider changes in society

Trash Hero volunteers have been picking up trash every week for just over 7 years, racking up some 12,000 cleanups in more than 170 locations worldwide and removing 1870 metric tons of rubbish from beaches, riversides, and other public spaces.

These numbers are impressive and we rightly celebrate the work that has gone into achieving them. Yet when stacked up against, for example, the tonnage of plastic waste produced globally in a single day, they are merely a drop in the ocean. Even with a million times more manpower, we would not solve the problem of plastic pollution with cleanups alone. We need prevention, to stop it at the source. So why choose this path?

Trash Hero Muba, Indonesia

The answer is that in order to turn off the tap, you first have to see that the water is overflowing. In our experience, cleanups are an easy, accessible way for people to understand first hand the impact of our overdependence on plastic. They gather people, energy and the all-important momentum to “do something”.

This momentum can, with positive messaging, be harnessed to spark behavioural change. Or, with large scale data collection, it can be used to influence policy, as shown recently with Break Free From Plastic’s brand audit project.

Trash Hero Lembata, Indonesia, conducts a brand audit in September 2020

The key is to have the cleanups run by independent community volunteers and to have them happen on a weekly basis. With no commercial or political affiliation, our chapters are able to engage a broad base of support, and new people join all the time. Regular events keep the issues on the agenda and start local dialogues about reusables and waste management.

Organised in this way, cleanups help open the door to more sustainable practices within a community. Once a Trash Hero chapter becomes established in an area and builds trust, our volunteers often find themselves invited to speak with local decision makers. Or, with the community on board, they may feel empowered to start a bigger initiative by themselves.

Picture captions [l-r]: Trash Hero Ende, Indonesia, helps a local school move to refillable drinking water; Trash Hero Langsuan, Thailand, has partnered with the district temple to implement zero waste practices, starting with composting; Trash Hero Koh Chang, Thailand is asked to take part in an island education programme to introduce household waste separation.

It was with these scenarios in mind that we embarked on the “Trash Hero Zero Waste Communities” training programme in Southeast Asia in late 2020. Our volunteers are, for the most part, ordinary people who want to make a difference, not policy experts. But we want them to take their seat at the table armed with the basic knowledge and skills to direct their communities away from false solutions and towards zero waste systems.

Based on a concept developed by Let’s Do It Foundation and organised by their educators, the first training sessions brought together a team of experts from the Break Free From Plastic movement, including Zero Waste Europe, GAIA Asia-Pacific and YPBB, as well as leading regional academics.

We connected them with groups of volunteers in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Due to the pandemic, the training was conducted online. The 2-day sessions were held in October and November and introduced participants to topics such as:

– Principles of circular economy

– Community waste auditing

– Building convincing arguments for zero waste (overview of false solutions and greenwashing)

– Real life examples of zero waste projects in Asia

These sessions also included group work and discussion. 

Zero waste ideas are still relatively new in these countries so all sessions were conducted in the local language with the help of translators and interpreters. This allowed the complex subject matter to be understood and adapted to the local cultural context. 

In total, 81 participants joined us for the live events. Out of these, 70 completed the two days and a further 51 did a follow-up activity to gain a certificate as a Zero Waste Practitioner (foundation level).

Maria Theresia Willbrorda is a Trash Hero volunteer who is active in her community of Lewoleba on the Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia, regularly giving talks in schools and neighborhood groups about reducing and separating trash. She shares, “From this workshop I feel more motivated and responsible while doing the cleanup. I also got more understanding about the zero waste concept, and this is so important, as it influences my daily life.”

Suphawat Chuenjan (“P’Toom”) is the leader of Trash Hero Chumphon. The group runs our education programme in the Thai province and has helped several schools go “zero waste”. He also organises a clothes and toy bank where local people can donate unwanted items to the kids in the programme. Of the training, he said, “I found it a very good activity. There was useful content, an exchange of knowledge. It is good to be aware of the achievements of different areas and see how it can be applied to your own area.”

We are all excited to move forward to the next stage of the training to be held this year: planning a concrete initiative and getting people on board.

The problem of plastic pollution is complex and multifaceted and cannot be solved with a single approach. Using the collective strengths of the BFFP movement, this small project shows how we can better fit together the pieces of the puzzle to bring greater and lasting impact.

Watch the full training in English as conducted by Dr. Enzo Favoino (Zero Waste Europe) and Miko Aliño (GAIA Asia-Pacific), along with that of the Malaysian incinerator expert, Mr Lam Choong Wah:


Interested in helping out Trash Hero efforts?

Seema Prabhu is Trash Hero World’s Programme Director. She started her zero waste journey organising beach cleanups in Thailand. Trash Hero is a global volunteer movement that drives change within communities, motivating and supporting them to clean and prevent plastic waste. Trash Hero has been a core member of Break Free From Plastic since 2016.