One of the things that immediately strikes travelers to Rwanda is how clean the country is. In all the places I’ve been, including the U.S., litter on the ground is a serious issue. You see it almost everywhere, blowing in the wind, lining gutters, hanging where it’s been caught on fences, floating in waterways. What would happen if every single person, every day, no matter where they live, would think about what they use and find ways to recycle, reduce or reuse it? What would happen if for those few things that must be thrown away, every single person would dispose of them properly? And for those things that might still end up on the landscape, what would happen if every single person would bend down and pick up at least two pieces of trash every day?
In the U.S. alone, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates every person generates about 4.5 pounds of trash per day. That’s 230 million tons of trash in the U.S. every year. Only about one-fourth of it is recycled or reused and most of the rest goes into landfills or is incinerated. But what happens to the trash that never makes it into the landfill or incinerator? It’s fair to say that it lays on the land until it blows away . . . but it’s got to end up somewhere eventually when the wind stops blowing. So where does it all go? Many people have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of floating debris of over 7 million square miles. According to National Geographic, the garbage patch is “so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up.” Lack of responsibility seems to be the reason for the inordinate amounts of garbage that collect everywhere on our planet. What if everyone decided it’s their own responsibility to keep our world clean?
Sadly, I’m guessing that it won’t happen voluntarily. To change the norms that allow people to blithely discard their trash, there must be a combination of incentive, enforcement, and education. What makes Rwanda so clean? The practice of umuganda has changed the norms in this small country. Once a month, on the third Saturday, everyone in the country stops what they are doing for three hours and commits to community service actions, most frequently removing any debris that has collected in public view. The amazing thing to me is that so little appears to collect in between Umuganda Saturdays. When you get used to seeing things clean, it goes a long way toward encouraging you to keep it that way. It also helps that you won’t find a plastic bag anywhere in the country. Plastic bags are not used anywhere in the entire country or even allowed to enter the country. Travelers are required to dispose of any plastic bags before exiting the airport. It’s a positive step that I’m happy to report is now occurring in many U.S. cities.
I’d like to challenge everyone who reads this to commit him or her self to encourage community action in action. If you can’t initiate an Umuganda approach on a large scale, start small. Pledge to pick up two pieces of litter on the landscape every day and encourage others to do the same. In fact, while you’re at it, decide that you’re never going to walk past a piece of litter again. If you see it, pick it up and dispose of it appropriately. Jane Goodall says that everything you do makes a difference one way or another and only you can decide what you want that difference to be. I agree wholeheartedly. Individually, we may not be able to make what feels like significant change, but we can all be responsible for the decisions we make every day.
– Lisa Brochu