As COVID-19 Spread, So Did the Garbage. These Israelis Took Action

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Cleaning up Haifa's Bat Galim Beach.
Cleaning up Haifa's Bat Galim Beach. Credit: Rotem Dori

Littering is a choice, and so is cleaning up. Government isn’t going to clean up after us as we unthinkingly discard our straws, bottles and cigarette butts wherever we damn well please. Which means we, litterbug humanity, have to do it ourselves and it’s become more urgent than ever before.

It is purely ironic that based on experience in Israel and Britain, if anything the coronavirus has not given nature a break. For one thing, people are using more disposables, from masks to plastic plates, than ever before.

Secondly, the moment lockdowns lift, people head for open spaces, disposables in hand. Thirdly, would-be volunteers are afraid to touch potentially coronavirus-contaminated plastics and other garbage. Nor is it possible to wield a lure that works well in normal times: attracting volunteers to clean up together, in a social event.

But littering has a history well before the virus, and one day an ordinary citizen, Dom Ferris, decided to decrease the amount of litter strewn along England’s trails by 75 percent. How? His signature breakthrough formula: hard work plus time yield results, he explains to Haaretz by phone.

Ferris has two hobbies: surfing the waves and riding mountain bikes, and in both arenas, litter is legion. Rather than just moan about it and blame government, for over a decade he’s been organizing volunteers to clean up nature.

Trash Free volunteers cleaning trails near Bristol, England.Credit: Paul Box

Trash Free Trails” has now gone nationwide. The nonprofit organization is funded by sponsors and donations and pays him a salary but is otherwise manned by volunteers.

Littering is human, but so is its collection, Ferris teaches. His method is to persuade communities: groups of people who ride bikes and horses, or own dogs, for example, to donate time to cleaning up. He also discovered value in uploading pictures of the volunteers to Instagram. And in the time of the coronavirus, if people can’t congregate, Trash Free suggests they simply get out there and clean up alone. It’s been working, perhaps because people are grasping at any valid reason to leave home.

In another innovation, Ferris collects information from the volunteers on the litter they pick up, in order to target companies whose products are being tossed. Not to shame them – Ferris wants to recruit them as partners in the organization. It’s in their interest, he points out, from Coca Cola to Red Bull to the makers of plastic cutlery.

One recent sweep involved 76 volunteers who cleaned 345 kilometers (214 miles) of trails. They collected 1,538 items of litter, an average of 4.5 items per kilometer, including 228 plastic bottles, 58 junk food wrappers, 19 disposable masks, and 23 soda cans. If they had sat back grousing about the garbage and wishing the government would do something about it, all that would still be there.

Asked if he believes education helps, Ferris points out that people have been programmed all their lives to consume and they don’t change their habits out in nature. Attacking litterers is counterproductive, in his experience. What may work is pointing out that investing in cleaning is a waste of money: that’s a language people understand.

He also has a practical proposal: enlist 1,000 volunteers, each responsible for 10 kilometers of trail close to his or her home, which would result in 10,000 kilometers of trash-free trails.

Coincidentally, that’s the length of all the marked trails in Israel.

True, the trails won’t stay clean, but note that last year, 128 tons of plastic were picked up from British beaches by 90,000 volunteers. The effort has to start somewhere.

Insane wave of garbage

The story of Israeli litter is also divisible into two parts: pre-coronavirus and now. Littering jumped by 30 percent this year, says the Streams and Springs Authority. Hikers feel the situation is out of control.

Garbage picked up by Nature Protectors along Tzalmon Stream in the north.Credit: Nature Protectors

Zohar Lidar of the Upper Galilee also noticed that griping achieves nothing and last year initiated cleaning drives along streams in her area. A whole day would be too much, she felt, and proposed that people devote an hour of their lives to cleaning nature, say between 9 and 10 on Friday morning.

In eight drives she organized via Facebook, there were 140 volunteers, 30 of them forming a hard core, with others coming once or twice. As summer 2019 ended most participants were positive about the experience, but Lidar decided not to continue this summer.

“In May I realized that this year was different, that the amount of garbage was insane and that people were behaving terribly,” she says. “There’s a sense that there are no boundaries any more. I decided there was no point to it.”

What about education and enforcement? “Enforcement is a huge problem with no answer. How can you prove someone threw a wrapper or plastic bottle along hundreds of kilometers of trails? The chances of finding someone in the act of littering are miniscule, which is why enforcement and fines are impractical,” she says. “Education is a big word, it’s important to introduce this topic to schools, as is done with road safety, but it’s not the only solution. You have to make people love nature.”

Volunteers collecting litter at Banias Stream in the Golan Heights. Credit: Nature Protectors

Falling in love with nature

Meanwhile in the Galilee, as the first lockdown in Israel ended in late May, two students at Tel Hai College set about doing that very thing. They felt they had to do something about the mounting piles of litter left behind by trekkers. Anya Giron and Roy Hershkovitz launched a group called “Nature Protectors”, proposing a cleanup campaign.

“Within 24 hours we had 250 people in our WhatsApp group wanting to volunteer,” says Giron. Clearly they’d hit a nerve.

After several sweeps in the upper Galilee, the group expanded its operations. Thirteen other groups were set up, including in the Jerusalem area. The Nature Protectors Facebook group now boasts 2,000 members. “The aim was simple. Go out and clean up your vicinity. We’ll help however we can: with advertising, coordination with local councils, providing equipment and bags, helping to dispose of the garbage collected, and so on,” Giron says.

She agrees that it would be nice if the local councils did this job, but it isn’t really their responsibility nor do they have the means to handle such vast amounts of trash. “The emphasis must be on individual responsibility. Each one of us should protect nature. We have to understand that there is no one to clean up after us,” she stresses.

The protectors of Haifa's Bat Galim Beach and some of the litter they collected.Credit: Rotem Dori

Of course it’s frustrating to find that some slob littered a place that had just been cleaned but that doesn’t mean their effort is futile. If you visit a littered site, you’ll be more likely to litter too, but if it’s clean – would you really the first to drop your bottle?

On the beach at Bat Galim

One particularly litter-prone site is the “unofficial beach” at Bat Galim, a neighborhood in Haifa (which means people aren’t supposed to swim there). “The city cleans the promenade, but not the beach. There is litter people leave behind and litter the sea casts up. The result is horrific,” says Sarah Ohayon, resident of Bat Galim and a marine ecologist. Five years ago a group formed, “Beach protectors – Bat Galim,” which focused on one stretch at a time and simply cleaned it up.

The group’s Facebook page has 1,300 friends. They organize cleaning sweeps every six weeks, which are typically attended by a few dozen people. In time the group expanded to cleaning not only the sand but the water in the Haifa bay, armed with snorkels and platforms for collecting garbage. They try to make it fun, with social and snorkeling events, she says.

Is it working? “There have been successes along the way. Are beaches cleaner? Not necessarily. Is there more awareness at the Bat Galim beach? Definitely,” she says. Now they’re working on broadening their activities to protection, not just cleaning up: “I’m glad there are lots of small communities going out to protect nature, but it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the damage.” Every time she saw an animal entangled in garbage, she would weep. Now she has chosen to fight, and ultimately, Giron says: “This is something that strengthens you.”

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