Romanian educational project promises 'A Future Without Waste'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Pupils show off their recycled costumes

Those who have ventured to the Romanian province of Transylvania will know there’s much more to the area than a few cheap jokes at its gothic literary ties.

Aged cobbled streets, medieval fortified churches and rolling country hills create a narrative not of vampires and crucifixes, but of stunning natural beauty.

It’s hard to believe, then, that a country which boasts such remarkable landscapes has one of the worst records for waste in Europe. Romania has an endemic rubbish problem, given that an eye-watering 95% of its waste goes to landfill.

Similarly, back in February 2017, the European Commission took Romania to the Court of Justice for its failure to close and rehabilitate 68 illegal landfills. Having joined the European Union just over 10 years ago, Romania now has the difficult task of reaching all of the EU’s targets, specifically a 50% recycling rate by 2020. With just three years to go, the country needs to look for a long-term solution to get its residents recycling.

Clear Public Space

Hoping to supply the answer is Luke Douglas-Home, founder and CEO of Clear Public Space, a social enterprise aimed to, well, clear public space. Currently, the group is running a project, ‘A Future Without Waste’, which aims to combat litter and fly-tipping in Romania and increase the country’s recycling rates by educating children and households about waste.

Its programme of activities are integrated with the local councils, businesses and community, all aimed at getting everyone, from children onwards, to see rubbish as a resource.

There are plenty of recycling initiatives across Europe, with ranging success, yet most are focused on government policy and legislation. What makes the project unique is that it is not just focused on consumers, but what Douglas-Home calls the “agents of change” – the children.

Cisnadie launch

The project had its official launch in the town of Cisnadie, near Sibiu last month. Here, visitors from across the community including residents, school children, parents and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) came together for a day of events and speeches. The project had already worked alongside schools to develop its educational programme, demonstrated by the entrance to the event hall which was decorated with sculptures created by the children, all made from waste.

Introducing the day’s proceedings, Douglas-Home said: “One request of you agents is to be the change that we all want for all of us Europeans. Waste is a resource, and you should come with us as we try to make a future without waste.”

The highlight of the launch was a performance from the schoolchildren in Cisnadie, who sang an anthem they had written specifically for the project. This was followed by a fashion show, with the pupils of class 3 wearing outfits they had modelled out of discarded items. Donned in CDs on strings, painted egg boxes and plastic-bag capes, the children looked like every Blue Peter project you were desperate to make but never got around to. The audience loved it, yet one RWW editor was filled with envy.

It was refreshing to see the Romanian children, who are used to walking along streets scattered with litter, viewing waste as a resource and not a disposable commodity. And they seemed to be loving every moment of it.

After lunch, the children left and it was time for Professor Helmut Maurer of the EU Commission to take to the stage. Left behind were the positive notes and ‘agents of change’ – Maurer’s speech gave a damning outlook on the EU member states’ current attitude to waste.

He said: “It’s extremely important for the EU Commission to come down from the ivory tower to talk to those people who are at the front. We deal with this planet as if it’s our possession, but we are going towards a very unsustainable path. Landfill is at the bottom of the waste hierarchy and although Romania as a country consumes less than others, it’s the way waste is dealt with [which causes the problems].”

Yet Maurer warned against viewing recycling as the answer to all waste problems. He said: “Recycling should not serve as an excuse for wastefulness. It would be better for the environment if these products were not produced in the first place, so we need to see a commitment from businesses to create sustainable criteria for goods. The biggest thing we can do at the moment, however, is educate.”

The launch helped demonstrate that Un Viitor fără Gunoi (A Future Without Waste) could become a reality, and it would be the children, not the policy-makers, who would implement this change.

Education, education, education

For there to be any real change in consumer behaviour, attitudes towards waste need to be changed. And where better to change these attitudes than in the classroom?

Children are incredibly perceptive and tend to pick up on new habits, such as recycling, very quickly and effectively. They are also the first ones to criticise if parents aren’t doing the right thing, so it’s no surprise that Douglas-Home sees them as agents of change.

He said: “Every part of the programme is ‘reward for good action’-based – from Spiderman awarding medals for competitions such as clean household waste brought into school, to day trips to apiaries for re-using glass jars.”

Maurer also recognised the importance of targeting the children. He said: “When I decided to come here, the people from the EU Commission asked why, when usually we are addressing policy leaders and heads of state. But children are the most important, not heads of state and government.

“We need not just law, but everything starts with the individual and changing habits. We should start in schools, teaching children and making them aware that their behaviour has an impact and that what they consume can produce less litter.”

And what better way to demonstrate the programme than seeing it in action. RWW visited a school in nearby village Valea Viilor, where the programme has been taught in the community school for the past year. The village is home to a fortified church that makes it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, therefore attracting tourists to boost its economy. However, Valea Viilor has many issues with its fly-tipping and street litter which inevitably prevents tourists from staying in the town.

The first year of the programme has been focused on the school’s kindergarten class, where children are taught at an early age to separate their waste and the benefits of recycling. Although they are yet to read and write, the children were able to easily identify recyclable materials, playing different games in order for the message to be remembered.

A future without waste?

It’s still early days for the project, having started the education programme last year after three years of research. Currently, A Future Without Waste runs in four areas of Transylvania, but Douglas-Home and his dedicated team have high hopes for spreading its message across Europe. It is funded by a range of partners including local councils, the European Nature Trust, Aqua Carpatica and the Mihai Eminescu Trust.

“We have honed the programme to work well in Romania as it grows, the next step is furthering its development so it works even better in the long term. The aim is to deal with a seismic problem that is all over the world,” Douglas-Home said.

A future without waste seems like a bold promise to a country that sends nearly all of it to landfill. Whether the project is enough to make significant change is yet to be seen, but even if it stops just a few children from throwing empty crisp packets on the floor, hasn’t it served its purpose?

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