How the magic began

A world-changing idea with a humble beginning. The Let’s Do It! World movement was born 10 years ago in Estonia, when 4% of the country helped clean the entire country in just a few hours. This captured the imaginations of people worldwide, who were inspired to follow suit with the same ambitious ‘one country, one day’ formula. Watch […]

A world-changing idea with a humble beginning. The Let’s Do It! World movement was born 10 years ago in Estonia, when 4% of the country helped clean the entire country in just a few hours. This captured the imaginations of people worldwide, who were inspired to follow suit with the same ambitious ‘one country, one day’ formula. Watch our video and read the account below, to find out how the magic began. 

 

The Let’s Do It! movement was born in the summer of 2007, when a group of determined nature enthusiasts in the small Baltic country of Estonia became concerned with the growing presence of trash in their country’s rich and expansive forests. Their dismay was heightened when Rainer Nõlvak, a visionary and successful IT entrepreneur (currently CEO of Stigo collapsible electric bikes) who had retired early to Florida but grown bored, returned home to find that his usually pristine green sanctuary on Estonia’s Hiiumaa Island had been invaded. Tires, carpets, old chairs and bed frames had turned the forest into a giant “prügikast” – a trash bin.

A call to Nõlvak’s colleague Toomas Trapido from the Estonian Fund for Nature, who was then serving as a Green in Parliament, ended with an invitation to attend a meeting at the Fish & Wine restaurant in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, on August 29th. The group, which also consisted of Toomas’s assistant Kadri Allikmäe, along with fellow nature lovers Nele Tõniste and Henri Laupmaa, articulated their plans for a five-year national cleanup campaign. Rainer agreed to get on board, but with an added twist. It was that night that he uttered the words that transformed Estonia, and inspired the world. “But”, he said, “we will do it in just one day.”

Kadri Allikmäe remembers, “The way he said it made me feel that he really meant it. By the end of the evening we had drawn up a list of various teams required to make it happen. All it took was a shift in our minds. Rainer showed us that we can do the impossible.”

In what was to become a key element of the entire undertaking, both the natural and high tech worlds of Estonia were fused, as Ahti Heinla was invited into the project. Heinla (now CEO of Starship Technologies) was a big name in the Estonian tech world after designing the software for Skype, and was also a board member of the Estonian Fund for Nature. He, in turn, invited his aquaintance Tiina Urm to head up communications for the project. Allikmäe adds, “It seemed like the project just wanted to happen.”

In September, while they considered how they could possibly make their seemingly absurd plan a reality, Rainer’s then CEO Ardo Reinsalu suggested approaching businesswoman Eva Truuverk, to provide some overall direction to the project. Her reply? “NO! Absolutely not!”. In fact, Truuverk had just sold her five companies, and was looking for a chance to rest and travel. But, she recalls, “In October, 2007, a business colleague – Viktoria Kuusk – dragged me to a meeting of around ten people”.

Truuverk found herself organising workshops and thinking circles around the country, out of which the original Let’s Do It flower logo with its seven quizzical faces was designed. In November that year, she presented a plan to launch Teeme ära! (or Let’s do it!, in English) the following May. The plan included the essential involvement of several high tech specialists, as well as a clear strategy to recruit the best professionals in each line of work required to pull off the event with success. With Truuverk’s work done – or so she thought – she left the country for five weeks, returning just before Christmas to find that absolutely no progress had been made.

In January, the new year brought renewed commitments, and the group re-assembled. Anneli Ohvril was brought on as Marketing Director, and various businesses agreed to provide the time and assistance of their personnel too. Now fully engaged, a group of Estonia’s most renowned high tech geniuses, headed up by Ahti Heinla, began to test GPS-based mapping software. Soon, 270 volunteers could be seen trekking through the Estonian countryside, recording major sites of trash pollution and transmitting their data back to Tallinn.

Excitement mounted as the first “trash map” quickly lit up with dots, encouraging the identification of a total of 10 656 waste hot spots. The question of what to do with the trash once collected, however, was for a while a major concern. Thankfully, this was resolved by local hauling companies agreeing to transport the waste, primarily from forested areas, to established recycling centers and trash collection points.

However, the New Year bursts of enthusiasm wavered somewhat when by mid-April only 10,000 of the estimated 40,000 volunteers required to pull it off had registered. Enter in the projects communication experts, who stepped up the promotional TV spots featuring Estonian actors, musicians and other local influencers to a high pitch.                 

When the day finally came – Saturday 3 May – to everyone’s great astonishment a whopping 50,000 people turned out, 4% of the country’s total population. The mass of volunteers collected over 10,000 tonnes of trash in just five hours. On Sunday evening, everyone involved celebrated their success with concerts kicked off by the then President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves – presented simultaneously via Skype in Estonia’s three major cities – Pärnu, Tartu and Tallinn. “Let’s Do It!” had morphed into “We did it!”, and the renownedly quiet population of Estonia cheered loudly. The team were elated with their accomplishment: “We had achieved something that had never been done – anywhere. We felt newly proud of our country – and we had fun doing it.”

Assessing the event’s achievements, the Estonian government concluded that waste clearance of such a scale would have cost them 22,500,000 million euros, and taken municipalities a full three years. Teeme ära’s cost? Just 500,000 euros – a whole 22 million euros less, and all carried out in a matter of hours.

And so, a fire that caught up in Estonia was soon to begin to spread. Their inspirational story captured the imaginations of people worldwide, who were inspired to follow suit with the same ambitious ‘one country, one day’ formula. This was the beginning of the global bottom-up civic movement, Let’s Do It! World, which has gained momentum and spread at great speed around the globe.

The movement has grown to be the biggest of its kind in the world – uniting people from all corners of the planet to work together in cleaning the world of trash. From just 50,000 people in one country in 2008, this year’s World Cleanup Day will now see over 20 million people in over 150 countries unite to clean up the world in a single day – 15 September.