Croatia is United Again – Part I

So why do we do cleanups? For the glory? For fame? For money? At the 2017 Clean World Conference in Tallinn Estonia over 250 delegates from 66 countries gathered to discuss the World Clean up 2018.

by Paul John Anthony Emmet

This will be the biggest single civic action involving 380 million people on September 15th 2018. Speakers included the newly appointed Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, Literatti founder Jeff Kirschner (litterati.org), environmentalist and artist Asher Jay and president of the International Solid Waste Foundation Antonis Mavropoulus (wastelessfuture.com).

While all the speakers and guests delivered inspiring and engaging calls for action, it was an unassuming pair from Croatia, who, away from the stage, over breakfast, stole the show. Ana Golja and Helena Traub in the small seaside town of Opatija in Croatia told their story and how they have by now engaged over 5% of the Balkan nation of Croatia in countrywide cleanups. These two no-nonsense ladies in 2009 made a decision. They resuscitated an ailing NGO and from the onset they decided to take a fresh approach. Environmental groups in Croatia were often known for saying no. No to such and such regulation, no to this new law, no to activities embedded in the national culture, in short environmental activism was associated with the word no! So Ana and Helena decided to say ‘Yes’. Yes we will do a cleanup, yes we will defend nature, and they didn’t stop there, yes we will run workshops in schools and kindergartens, yes we will teach people how to recycle, compost, sort their waste, eat healthily. With over 20 different workshops and activities in their portfolio they had a tiny income stream in the form of grants they obtained for visiting schools and kindergartens.  The sessions were low-tech and with an extremely low budget, sometimes only a few euros per session.

Photo: Let’s Do It! Croatia

In 2011 after attending the Balkan conference they met the Slovenian cleanup team and the Balkan neighbours inspired Ana and Helena to organise the first nationwide cleanup of Croatia in 2012. The local municipal council provided them with an office, and between them they were earning the equivalent of the minimum wage, they split this, although the money often went for resources for their actions. And it would now get really tough. The thing is, they had no money, no sponsor, no team, and nobody in Croatia was interested. In fact people including family and friends thought they were mad. So the tireless two began gathering about them a small team of volunteers and began to send emails and make phone calls to the municipalities, businesses, the state government, and other NGOs. Guess what happened. Nothing. For seven months they laboured until a lucky break. With the success of the Slovenian cleanup in 2011 where 14% of the population turned out there was a buzz across the border. The ad agency that hatched their successful viral campaign was talking with their counter-part in Croatia, and when by chance the Ana and Helena contacted them they found they had a welcome response. The ad agency in Croatia agreed to support them, and what’s more put in a word to the Croatian President about their worthy initiative and how the Slovenian cleanup had brought Slovenia together. The Balkan’s competitive reputation, if Slovenia can do it, so can we, began to work in their favour. In a 17sqm office, using painters ladders and plans as a large desk, 15 people were packed in making calls to the municipalities, with the endorsement of, although no financial help from, the President. The local councils started to come around. But with 555 municipalities often requiring at least 3 phone calls, the work was exhausting. The volunteers worked a lot in these cramped conditions but these two worked even 20 hours a day, and their family and friends thought Ana and Helena were crazy. Every last penny they could muster went into keeping the cleanup dream alive and they borrowed Ana’s mother’s car in order to travel the country mapping the illegal waste sites.

Most of the volunteers were unemployed or students and the experience to be involved in such a bold initiative was their incentive. Ana and Helena also had skills, skills which they were able to transfer to their young team, a resilience and steely determination. Their practical ‘can do’ approach rubbed off on their team. One guy, who was as quiet as a mouse when he first joined them, spoke quietly and shyly on the phone but never gave up. The team was also involved in mapping, a key part in the promotion and execution of any cleanup. Team members drove around Croatia with a camera and a borrowed GPS photographing trash and uploading the coordinates to a website. As the girls had no IT support to speak of, the site, while primitive, was effective. Having learned to set-up a website only days previously another achievement was chalked up on the road to a clean country.

During the mapping things got weird. Several illegal dumpsites were mapped in the capital, Zagreb and especially earmarked for local politicians to clean on the day of the event. This is a bit of a gimmick utilised by many nationwide cleanup teams. It provides a showcase cleanup for celebrities and politicians in a well known place that they can take credit for cleaning up, and get their pictures taken. Instead of kissing babies they are picking up trash. Yet in this instance something peculiar happened. A few days before the cleanup the mapped rubbish dumps had been cleaned up. The mayor of Zagreb had dispatched a cleanup team to already take care of it. Frantically the team had to find another site in order for the showcase to happen.

On the actual day of the cleanup 41,558 Croatians participated and cleaned 3746 tonnes of illegal waste. People came from all walks of society, the army, police, hikers, bikers, schoolchildren, celebrities, politicians, etc. The lead story on every news channel was the cleanup and the most popular 30 minute news reportage dedicated 8 minutes to the story, the longest any airtime has been given to any feature. And what confirmed that their efforts had paid off? Well, the last words in the reportage when the journalist proclaimed, ‘After the war this is the first time Croatia is united. And the team, well two of the waste mappers who met while photographing dumpsites went on to marry, the mouse became a lion, one of the many volunteers in the core team who found well paying jobs in sectors they had previously dreamt about.  

So why do we clean? One day the kindergarten kids, who Ana and Helena teach recycling and composting to, will be grown up and will want to travel the world marveling at nature’s wonders. Unless we take action today those wonders won’t be there anymore, and that’s why we do it.