A Swedish woman, cleaning up Malta

Malta, a Southern European island, is one of the smallest countries in the world with its population (460 297), including annual tourists, ever increasing. It’s the only country in the European Union which landfills all its waste. The main issue is that their waste stream is increasing beyond limits and landfill space is running out. World […]

Malta, a Southern European island, is one of the smallest countries in the world with its population (460 297), including annual tourists, ever increasing. It’s the only country in the European Union which landfills all its waste. The main issue is that their waste stream is increasing beyond limits and landfill space is running out.

World Cleanup Day in Malta is working to get 10 000 – 22 000 volunteers involved on the 15th of September. For a small island which just recently started its green movement, it’s a huge number! Addressing the task, Camilla Appelgren, an inspiring young Swedish woman who moved to Malta and started a movement to raise awareness about the littering issue. Camilla is now the official leader of World Cleanup Day Mediterranean. She and her dedicated team of people representing cleanup groups and environmental NGOs on the island are collaborating to make this day a success!

Why does one young Swedish woman move to Malta and start cleaning up trash and changing the environment for the better?  

I moved to Malta in 2012 with my two kids. I started off as a diving instructor and saw the marine debris. It really made me feel bad, not only because of the state of our sea, but also because so few people actually saw what I saw. This is when I decided to start a movement and raise awareness about the littering issue in Malta.

How did you get involved with Let’s Do It World?

I participated in Let’s Do It! Malta in 2014 and I really liked the concept of people coming together for a good cause. That was the first time I had heard about it. When I learned it was not to be continued in Malta, I decided to see how I could do my part and make it a yearly event going forward.

What are the main environmental problems in Malta?  

The biggest challenge is plastic – single-use plastic! It’s everywhere. Malta does not yet have a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, however, it’s going to be introduced in the coming year. About 50% of the litter I find on land is plastic; 30% of that is made up by plastic bottles. The top items are plastic containers/bottles, plastic caps, q-tips/ear buds and other single-use plastics – cups, cutlery, bags.

What are the challenges related to mapping and cleaning up the waste? 

The biggest challenge with mapping is that litter is on every inch of this island. Some see it as a never-ending task. The money to clean it up isn’t there, so it’s not a priority issue. Actually, the biggest task isn’t to clean it up, but to maintain it. We don’t have much enforcement and when it is enforced, people don’t hear about it. Hence they think the trash problem doesn’t exist.

Why is cleaning up the world important for you? 

The thing that motivates me is my children and, of course, the amazing people I have come to know within this movement. They inspire me to continue the fight. They show me that my initiative, started seven years ago, was worth the blood, sweat and tears! Together we make change and along the way we also make friends.

The main message you convey through your work and activity is that “Everybody can initiate changes!” You have lived in Malta for seven years. Can you see that some changes are already happening?

Yes, Malta has gone from being a country not really using the word „sustainability“ at all, to suddenly seeing it everywhere. Plastic straws have been ditched for bamboo straws and plastic bags changed for the biodegradable or reusable ones. The latest action: supermarkets are moving to reusable containers for the deli items. I always encourage these companies to share their good work and when they do, it goes viral. It always makes my day to see that! It motivates other companies to do the same.

What is the hardest thing about initiating these changes? Malta, a Southern European island, is one of the smallest countries in the world with its population (460 297), including annual tourists, ever increasing.

Time! It took many years to get this movement up and running. I was told during my first year that I might as well give up, no one would listen. I slowly started to tell myself that it didn’t matter if no one listened – „I do this for myself and my kids!“ At the end of the day I want to feel that I did something to make a difference. In time, people saw that the small changes I did actually helped. So time has been my main obstacle, as well as getting people to collaborate, to leave the pride and credit-taking to the side and just work towards the same goal.

Who or what has supported you?

All the people who have been on my side since the start. They all have been so amazing! Also the people who haven’t yet joined the actual cleanups but still send me messages to encourage me. Their messages always melt my heart! My family has supported me through hard times and good times, because being an environmentalist means not only going to conferences and dinners, but actually being out there in the field, fighting with your bare hands. It’s hard work and, at times, the time I’ve spent away from my kids has left me with feelings of guilt. But seeing them growing up, respecting the nature, makes it all worth it. Both of my children are now involved in the movement in their own ways.

Do you have a memorable story or event that has moved you personally in your cleanup efforts?

I was doing a cleanup near the sea, in an area with many immigrant children. I was picking up the plastic bottles when I noticed a little boy watching me. I think he was about five years old. He slowly approached me and gave me a plastic bottle. I asked him if he knew why we were picking up the bottles. He said that, in school, they had learnt that the dolphins could get harmed by the bottles, so he wanted to help me. He kept on picking up plastic with me and didn’t speak much; his English was very limited. Finally, I decided to give him one of my 4Ocean bracelets and I told him that I only give these bracelets to the ones I consider heroes. He looked me in my eyes and said, “You and me…we are friends now” and ran off. Minutes later, ten boys came running with loads of plastic bottles and helped us clean up. I managed to reach this little boy, who didn’t even speak English. It was, and still is, one of my best memories in my life.

Have you had any shocking experiences related to mapping or cleaning up the waste? And, if so, how has that experience affected you?

We find a lot of horrible things – dead horses, kitchens full of waste, other things. The saddest part, however, is when we go to these pristine island places and find that they are covered in microplastics. It always breaks my heart because we can’t leave the place clean – it fills up again in no time. But we do our best and I always remind the volunteers that no matter what, every piece picked up is one less in the sea. It makes me more determined than ever to work towards a solution. Before I die I want to see my vision become reality.

What has changed in your life since getting involved with Let’s Do It! World?

The environment has taken over my life, in a good way. I learn so many new things every day due to the awareness this project is spreading on social media. I feel so empowered to see the movement all around the globe. It has also let me get to know so many amazing people through the years. Today I call them my closest friends.