ED Interview: Šarūnė from River Cleanup Lithuania

May 7, 2021
Volunteers removing an old tire from the river
Photo provided by River Cleanup Lithuania
By Eko Diena in 

River Cleanup Day happens at the start of June. We talked to Šarūnė from River Cleanup Lithuania to find out a bit more about the action, how people can be a part of it, and the initiative in general.

The River Cleanup initiative is relatively new, starting in 2017 with a small and simple 10-minute garbage collection challenge. When and how did Lithuania become part of the initiative?

We have been researching environmental topics for ten years and organizing various awareness campaigns and environmental education initiatives. After learning about the idea of ​​the River Cleanup actions that started in Belgium and their creator Thomas de Groote, we decided to bring this initiative to Lithuania as well. River Cleanup Lithuania took place for the first time in 2019, so this year we are organizing the third action.

Who is responsible for River Cleanup in Lithuania?

The River Cleanup initiative is organised in Lithuania by the Green Policy Institute. It is a non-governmental organization that creates and manages sustainable development solutions. The team at the Institute examines the most relevant environmental issues, systematically disseminates green policy ideas, develops international cooperation, environmental and ecological education activities, and implements projects at the international, national and municipal levels. We maintain close contact with decision-makers at the state level (parliament, ministries, and municipalities), non-governmental organizations and companies that meet the highest environmental standards.

Thanks to raised awareness from initiatives like “Let’s Do It World,” on communities and individuals, we can certainly see that there are less and less piles of waste in nature, but it isn’t the case yet that don’t find garbage in rivers while kayaking. Can River Cleanup help solve this problem? What are the main mission and goals of the initiative?

The condition of rivers and riverbanks is clearly illustrated by the results of the annual River Cleanup actions. Last year, we pulled out 60 tires while cleaning up the Vilnelė river section alone. In total, around 900,000 kg of waste was collected from rivers and their banks around the world. It’s estimated that 8,000,000,000 kg of waste enters the oceans each year. 80% gets there through the rivers.

Our goal is to bring people together and organize river clean-up actions, to raise awareness and create change. In other words, we aim not only to clean up rivers by removing waste from them, but also to take preventive measures to prevent waste from entering bodies of water at all. This initiative is a way to speak out about river pollution and to educate the public about the impact of waste in rivers on the natural environment.

What do you think is the importance of the social aspect and of education in this process?

Public awareness and education is a very important element in this process, both in terms of water pollution that the general population is responsible for, and also the pollution caused by the activities of companies. The more the public is aware and understands the consequences, the less rubbish we will find in our rivers. At the same time, society will take a tougher view of polluting companies, which will have economic consequences for them, and they will simply have to change in order to remain competitive.

Actually, research shows that communication based on intimidation and accusations about environmental challenges does not encourage people to change their behaviour. It shows that after a while, people get used to negative information and no longer pay attention to it. For this reason, it is very important to educate the public by inspiring them, and showing specific measures that can be taken to change the situation. That way people’s motivation grows and you can achieve much more effective results.

The UN has dedicated this decade to ocean science, which is also related directly to rivers, would you agree that sometimes we pay too little attention to the care and conservation of bodies of water?

We really pay too little attention to the maintenance and conservation of our bodies of water. This is well illustrated by the fact that less than 40% of rivers meet the criteria of good ecological condition. In Lithuania, almost every second river is considered to be of average, poor or very poor condition. This also leads to other environmental problems: pollution affects the entire aquatic ecosystem, plastic waste is particularly harmful to animals and often even causes their death.

Why is there too little attention paid to this? Perhaps one of the reasons is that these problems seem distant, we do not see them with our own eyes, so we forget that they exist at all. There is a plastic island 25 times larger than Lithuania in the Pacific Ocean, but it is difficult for us to realize that we could have contributed to it ourselves.

In Europe, the situation is not yet as bad as in some other parts of the world. However, it must be understood that the waste that enters rivers doesn’t only pollute locally. It travels with the flow of the river, so the rubbish dumped in Lithuania can pollute water bodies in a completely different country. Then it seems to become a problem of another state.

What easy actions can each of us take to prevent waste from entering rivers?

First of all, we should start with the most moderate consumption possible. The planet’s resources are limited, so we should avoid one-off products which soon become waste. When purchasing any item, we should give priority to quality products that will serve our needs for as long as possible. When an item breaks down, we should at least try to fix it, not throw it away and buy a new one.

If something is really no longer fit for use and we need to dispose of it, care should be taken to put it in a waste container and not to leave it in nature. Ideally, it should be placed in a container for recycling, so it can be turned into secondary raw materials, and can be reborn into a new life.

These are preventive steps that we can all take in our daily activities. It’s true that it will take time to reach the level of awareness when we find no rubbish in our rivers or forests. Until then, we can contribute to a cleaner environment by participating in River Cleanup or other cleanup initiatives. Finally, we can dedicate 10 minutes every day to a walk with a garbage bag, collecting naturally occurring waste. This will allow you not only to set a positive example for those around you but to get some physical exercise as well.

Everyone can also contribute to the cleanliness of water bodies by properly managing wastewater, avoiding microplastics, products containing chemicals (various cleaners, detergents, etc.), and finally, not washing the car on the lake or riverbank.

If you could describe this initiative in numbers, what might they be?

In these first years of existence, 1,565 River Cleanup actions have been held in 45 countries around the world. More than 100,000 people have already helped to clean up the banks of 161 rivers. In the first year of the initiative in Lithuania, more than 500 people took part in cleaning up our bodies of water, and almost 1,000 volunteers from various Lithuanian cities have already registered to participate in this year's event. Students are the most active in demonstrating their desire to participate this year. Last year, 50 teams of volunteers gathered together in Lithuania to clean up 20 different bodies of water. Such a level of activity in Lithuania surprised even the organizers of the international initiative.

And how can we celebrate or be part of River Cleanup Day?

The River Cleanup initiative will take place this year on June 5-6 to mark World Environment Day. Anyone wishing to join the actions happening simultaneously around the world, just needs to register an area they will be cleaning up, pick up a few rubbish bags and travel to the nearest body of water on foot or by another environmentally friendly way on the first weekend of June.

We will send instructions to all the registered participants on what to do with the collected waste, how to solve the problems of bulky waste disposal and how to comply with all safety requirements.

Actually, this year residents are invited not only to cleanup, but also to contribute to the creation of a visual library that will help scientists monitor and study the condition of river banks. The captured photos will create a common database that will be freely accessible to scientists and experts studying riverbanks. The collected visual material will make it possible to identify the condition of the banks and observe how they change over the years. Those wishing to join the research team should simply note this on the registration form, and everything they need to know about how to capture images of the banks will be sent out to those participants via email.

Find out more about River Cleanup Lithuania and how to take part on June 5th-6th at: River Cleanup Lithuania

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