What Makes Latvia so Special? Hundreds of Thousands Taking Real Action to Make Latvia the Cleanest Country in the World

Tauno Nõulik went to Latvia to participate in the nation-wide Let’s Do It! cleanup (Lielā Talka) of Latvia on April 25. What makes Latvia so special? Hundreds of thousands, including the President of the country, participate annually in a massive litter cleanup. The aim is to become the cleanest country in the world by 2018.

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In the morning of the cleanup day, I woke up a bit earlier than I’m used to. Fortunately the weather is warm, although cloudy – and it stays like that during the whole day. At least it won’t rain. I’ve written down the phone numbers of people responsible for some interesting cleanup sites not too far from the centre of the capital city Rīga. It’s actually not so easy to reach them all by phone, but I manage to talk to Liene, the contact person for the cleanup in the Andrejosta district. She tells me that mostly people from the Diena newspaper would be working there, however everyone else are welcome as well.

Media channels not just covering the event, but getting dirty cleaning up

Andrejosta is a harbour area. It looks mostly industrial, with some eclectic stuff like hipsterish restaurants, a retro car rental or a paintball venue here and there. After a little walk, I arrive to an anonymous-looking yellow building between a factory (or, as I later find out, an old electrical power plant that is part museum, part empty now) and a freight railway station. It also turns out that the building we meet at is the headquarters of Diena. While people are gathering, a guy called Andris gives instructions. We can use rakes, shovels, and forks; there are blue trash bags and a red container where to empty the bags, we shouldn’t throw trash in there with bags. We also get gloves – one reason why they are recommended is that the blue trash bags, distributed specially for the cleanup, may colour hands. And it’s really not recommended to go behind the bushes to the freight railway. Liene adds: “You can learn a lot of new swearwords that way. Or at least we did when we had a look there and the railway station guard saw us.”

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After that, everybody starts working while new people keep arriving – meaning also that Andris has to repeat the instructions every once in a while. As for me, I start picking up shattered glass in front of the building (Andris mentions that during the recent renovation works, the old windows were shattered on the spot), however soon I understand it’s pointless as no matter how much I’ll try, there will still be some glass left, and there are also bigger tasks around. Behind the building, there are heaps of branches, leaves and rubbish raked together, and I help the others to throw them into the red container. After that I continue with picking up bigger rubbish from behind the house. There is some waste from the construction works, mixed with food and drink packaging that’s obviously been left behind by people who enjoy messy picnics in an industrial zone. Finally, I see a bag that is partially buried under the soil and when I dig it up, it appears to be filled with some white stuff, probably lime or clay. After throwing it in the container I find another bag, then another one and so on – I practically need to dig a hole in the ground to throw away all these bags that had probably been buried there once to get rid of them. Fortunately the soil is not very even anyway and it’s not too difficult to find soil to fill up that hole again.

When I ask Andris about recycling, he said that it’s a good thing, but it would be nearly impossible work to separate, for example, shattered glass from leaves and grass, I also tried it myself (and I agree with him as I found out that everything was really mixed up). When asking him about their activities during the cleanup in general, it turns out that they have made such common cleanup days with their newspaper team each year, however it’s the first time for them in that place, as they were based in a different location until recently.

Now, the newspaper has turned it into an annual tradition, and not only cleaning on the big and official cleanup day, but they also work together to keep the area clean e.g. in the autumn when the leaves are falling. Today, there are about 40–50 people working in their cleanup and most of them are people from Diena, as well as their friends, relatives and children.

News from around the country gathered in a quiet central office

Although I really like to work there with them, I also have another place in mind which I want to reach that day. So I leave just before the soup is being made, making the others wonder why should I go before the best part of the day. After some walking I reach the office of a PR company where also the Latvian cleanup organisers are based that day. The walk is not long, but it’s amazing how the surroundings change – industrial and slightly neglected Andrejosta is replaced by clean and fancy streets with marvelous Art Nouveau buildings, tourists, cafeterias and embassies. The place where I need to go is in one of the most fascinating buildings there, and Evija from the Latvian Let’s Do It! action (campaign is named Lielā Talka in Latvian – meaning “big cleanup”) lets me in and shows me around.

I’m actually a little bit surprised! I know that it’s the place where the information about all the cleanups country-wide flows together, so I’ve expected to see a bustling office with ringing phones, busy but excited people running around with important papers and talking to the journalists when they happen to have half a minute of free time. Instead, I see just some people sitting at the computers calmly – the only difference from a usual office seems to be that some of these people are obviously younger than office workers usually are. Evija tells me that they’re volunteers, each responsible for some certain geographical area in Latvia. And additionally, by the time I’ve arrived, the cleanups are already finishing. The coordinators in every cleanup spot have to send the volunteers an SMS notification with some basic information when they have finished, and the volunteers are inserting that data into the computers.

They also find out if anything interesting is found anywhere during the cleanups. By the time I arrive, they’ve heard about two sofas, a 10 euro banknote and an animal skull. As for the most interesting cleanups, there are some people cleaning a canal in Rīga with boats. In Ādaži, the US soldiers who are there for exercises participate in the cleanup.

Discovering the key to the success of the Latvian cleanups

Evija doesn’t have much time to show me around as she leaves soon to give a live TV interview. A little while after she leaves, we all see her on TV, although as the interview is long and detailed, we don’t watch it up to the end. I think everybody besides me is used to seeing her on TV anyway. Also other people in the headquarters occasionally get phone calls from journalists, and it seems to me that one of their main tasks actually is gathering information, filtering and arranging it a little and passing it then onto the press.

I also talk to Katrīna whose task is to take care of Twitter or Facebook posts about the Latvian cleanup. The social media activity has grown notably even compared to last year and a lot more interesting information and photos are posted there instead of being sent to the organisers. lati

She also tells me that the number of participants in general has grown considerably. It’s because of several factors, including the Let’s Do It! Clean World international conference in Rīga earlier this year that received attention, but also the cleanup day itself has had about two months of intensive media coverage motivating people to go and participate, it’s been impossible to miss it.

Even the president of Latvia is promoting the cleanup day and also participating himself, while the prime minister participates even in two cleanup locations. Generally, although there are also famous people promoting the cleanup, it has started to work even vice versa with politicians – they participate in the cleanup to get positive attention (and also, as I’m told – it’s a good thing that there are no elections this year, otherwise it would soon get really annoying).

By that point, also the atmosphere in that office looks totally different to me. It’s calmer than I’ve expected but it’s nothing like a boring office job. The people there really like what they do, they’re still enthusiastic and excited despite being already a bit tired from a long and intensive day, and they are really warm and friendly. I like the atmosphere there!

Anyway, I still return to Andrejosta afterwards – I don’t want to miss the soup and there is still some left when I arrive back. A perfect cleanup day…

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By Tauno Nõulik (Let’s Do It! World Newsletter team)