When you meet someone you don’t know very well, sooner or later you ask them “So what do you do then?” or “Where do you work?” or even “What’s your profession?” Right? I do that too. I want to understand where the other person’s interests lie. It’s a good conversation starter.
Since we’re strange enough that we moved from Germany to “third-world” Romania, don’t own a car (unlike pretty much everybody else), still ride our bikes when it’s -15°C outside, and sometimes dress like we’re on welfare, this is always the second question everyone asks us right after “Hello, how are you?”
I usually respond with “I work online”. Emma is “a freelance translator…online”. After that though, we rarely get a follow-up question. We’ve been thrown in some mental “buckets”. Everybody’s happy, so now we can talk about important hings like… the weather.
If I wanted to answer that question properly, I’d have to give a two-hour monologue and most people are just not that interested. It’d be also a bit selfish.
Here on the blog though, I’m happy to go into more detail. So I will!
What is my main interest nowadays? Can you guess?
Is it FI? Financial education? Parenting? Politics?
The short answer: I am an environmental activist.
Ever since we moved to Romania in mid-2017 I couldn’t stop noticing all the rubbish lying around on the streets, in the green spaces and pretty much everywhere. It’s really disgusting.
In fact, I’ve now quit all my consultancy clients (hourly rate: €120-130) for which I worked from home (sometimes in my pyjamas or underwear) and now I can often be seen collecting plastic bottles and aluminium cans from the streets. I actually spend a couple hours a week doing that and it makes me a lot happier than selling my time working with a product that at the end of the day doesn’t truly benefit anybody.
So, I noticed that I really don’t like seeing all that rubbish and I started asking questions, talking to key people in the town, and trying to find solutions.
This post is about my efforts to reduce the waste thrown away randomly on the streets and increase the recycling rate in my hometown (population ca. 10,000).
I invite you to join me on this pretty adventurous journey, of which I’m still only at the beginning.
HEALTH WARNING: if you’re sensitive to high levels of stupidity and ignorance, please take your pills, make yourself a nice cup of warm milk with honey or whatever makes you feel relaxed before you read on.
1. The illegal rubbish dump
One day in late 2017, we put the kids in the bike trailer and took a ride out to the lakes on the outskirts of town.
While we were playing at the playground, I saw a tractor transporting something in the direction of the town’s illegal rubbish dump which is basically a lake in the immediate vicinity of the lakes where I spent a big part of my childhood playing.
It’s a rubbish dump where, according to local officials, you’re only allowed to throw biodegradable stuff (branches, leaves) and earth/bricks from demolitions. You can guess that the reality is completely different.
I noticed immediately that the cart of the tractor was filled with all sorts of plastic rubbish, not just branches and leaves. I decided to call the authorities (environment office of the town hall) and ask them to come and sort it out.
While I was waiting I got suspicious. Something about that tractor wasn’t right. Then I realized that it probably belonged to a company that’s owned by the local council. They use it to clean the roads from snow and also to pick up all the huge piles of rubbish that people throw out when they clean out their houses or demolish a building.
That really freaked me out. The local council itself was filling that lake with all sorts of waste without (as far as I can tell) even trying to separate out the plastic and other non-biodegradable junk. F*ck it, they even pay for a wee tractor to push all the dirt into the lake! Great, huh?!
WTF? How on earth can they get away with that in the EU?
Of course, nobody gives a shit.
2. The rubbish lying at the side of the roads
Apart from maybe in city centres, rubbish bins are not a thing in Romania. The complete lack of civilisation and respect for environment is plainly evident wherever humans live in this otherwise amazing country.
In my hometown even the relatively small central park has ancient rubbish bins whose bottoms have rusted out. All the rubbish falls straight through them and just lies around everywhere.
While in the town centre there are rubbish bins, outside of it there are none. The drainage ditches are completely full of plastic bottles. Nobody cleans them, nobody gives a shit.
Sometimes, you notice a bag filled with rubbish from somebody’s kitchen thrown beside the road. The next day you see another one. A week later there’s a shiny new rubbish dump in the middle of nature.
3. The recycling rate
A couple of months ago the town hall published an article in the local paper in which they said that the recycling rate of the town is about 2%. Even if it#d have a 0 at the end, it wouldn’t have been much.
To be fair, the town hall does regularly publish all sorts of information about recycling but the citizens basically don’t care. Why? Because there are ignorant. Plus, there are no fines and people aren’t very civilised if they’re not forced to be. Officially there are laws and fines, but not one person was fined for dumping rubbish illegally in the whole of 2017. That explains a lot.
In fact, the town paid a €15,000 fine to the EU last year because of its miserable recycling rate. That’s not an insignificant amount of money for a small town.
The recycling rate in Germany is about 50%. We have a long way to go.
So I decided to try to do something about it.
At the end of 2017 the local council organised a public debate about the rubbish issue. They were just about to release a set of rules and fines connected to this topic. I thought, “Wow, great, things are happening.” And of course I sent a list of problems and ideas before the debate.
I turned up. Turns out I was the only citizen who did. And I was the only one who actually sent them an e-mail with ideas.
Wow. WTF? Nobody else gives a shit?
This is when I seriously asked myself whether everybody else in town is stupid and I’m the only one who’s doing the right thing, or exactly the opposite: I must be an idiot.
I refused to accept the latter. The whole situation is just so obviously wrong.
After the “public” debate which turned out to be “my private show”, nothing changed. At all. Except that there was a new regulation that nobody gave a shit about. Nobody enforced it.
I sat down and wrote a draft document with all my ideas on how to improve the situation. Some of them were embarrassingly simple. However, it turned out that they can be still very effective. In the hope that some of you might be in the same situation, I’ll share them with you:
Identify all the illegal rubbish dumps.
Prioritize them. Clean them. Put up signs telling people not to throw their rubbish there. Monitor the worst ones (the town is covered by CCTV). Fine people who use natural areas as a rubbish dump.
Run information campaigns
To make people understand what the rules are and how they should behave in 2018 in a European town.
Enable schools to provide environmental education.
Talk to the teachers. This is a long term, difficult one, but I strongly believe it’s the best thing we can do. I actually did talk to them and they seemed open, but there’s more work to be done.
Install rubbish bins throughout the town
(not just in the centre) and manage them (empty them regularly). Why did nobody come up with this one?
Find out how many households don’t have a contract with the rubbish collection company.
My logic: why would somebody walk 200-300 meters to throw a bag of rubbish in the grass if the bin lorry comes to their door to empty their bin every week? I would be too lazy to do that. All these people want to save the €4 a month the rubbish collection company charges.
I asked a local official whether the council can force people to have a contract. The answer was “No”. But two weeks later the council wrote a nice article in the local newspaper about how there’s a law that obliges every household to have a contract with the rubbish collection company. Of course there’s a fine as well. What a surprise! It’s really difficult for me to understand how nobody thought about this before.
Give people yellow bags!
Here’s how it works: if you put out a yellow bag filled with recyclable stuff, you get a new one thrown in the yard. If you don’t put one out, you don’t get a new one, hence very few people use the yellow bag. Many people never had a yellow bag and never even asked why they don’t have one. Is this rocket science? Once somebody fills the bag one or two times, they’re going to do that forever.
Put yellow recycling containers in front of the blocks of flats.
If you live in a tiny flat and the huge yellow bag is only picked up once a month, it’s likely you won’t bother using the yellow bag and will throw everything in the general landfill bin instead. What quantities of recyclable waste go into landfill every week because of this? Lots!
Clean the city.
Get some people together twice a year and collect all the plastic from the streets. If the streets are clean it’s less likely that people will throw their rubbish on the street.
Get people on welfare to clean the city.
There’s a law in Romania that if you’re on welfare (because you don’t want to work) you have to do some kind of social work for the local community. The local council already uses these people to clean the town centre, but they don’t give a shit about the other parts of the town. Side note: the unemployment rate in the town is 0%. So if you’re a healthy human, the only reason you don’t have a job is because you don’t want one.
Do some marketing for the companies who buy recyclable materials.
While there are thousands of plastic and aluminium bottles lying around on the streets, there are about two companies in the town who actually pay money for them. Not much money, but still. Unfortunately most people don’t know about this. If more people, especially poor people, knew about it, more people would pick up the “money” lying around at the side of the roads. At least that’s what I think.
Close those illegal rubbish dumps for fuck’s sake!
That’s a big one and difficult one. But hey, if they don’t the shit will hit the fan sooner or later. Elections are coming. Candidates are looking for stuff to throw at the current mayor. Why give them such gifts? I wouldn’t if I were a mayor.
So those were my main ideas for tackling the problem. But how could I make the council implement them?
I needed partners. I couldn’t do much on my own. So I teamed up with the local Rotary Club which had been involved in environmental initiatives in the past and were open to help (at least to put their name to it, which wasn’t too bad for starters).
One day I even invited the vice mayor for a coffee to talk about these issues. Later I went to see the mayor to see how he was and to find out his thoughts about the whole thing.
The person responsible for environmental issues in the town knows me well already. He might not like me anymore (because I want him to do his job). But hey…I can live with that.
What else? I went to talk to the person in charge of the rubbish collection company. I also met the guy who runs the private recycling company that pays money for plastic. All in all I spent dozens of hours just talking to people in a constructive way.
It’s incredible that people don’t think of stupidly simple things that could benefit their work or their own company. People get into a routine that nobody questions and they have no initiative to think even a tiny bit outside the box. To some extent I can understand it, maybe even I do that sometimes. But here we’re talking about stupidly ridiculous proportions.
Our Achievements So Far
We cleaned the city.
I teamed up with the local high school (100 pupils) and other organisations to clean the city. We literally collected most of the plastic from every street. It was actually their initiative, I just tried to help with the organisation. I’ll make sure to make it a recurring event.
A few months ago, big yellow bins appeared in front of the blocks of flats.
The rubbish collection company decided it was time. They collect about half a tonne of recyclable packaging a month just from those bins. To put it in context, that’s 5-10% of the total recyclable material collected in this town each month. Was it my achievement? I don’t know. I think so. Doesn’t matter.
The local council published some statistics about how many households DON’T pay for rubbish collection.
Hence they don’t have a bin. Hence they must throw their rubbish away in the town’s natural areas. About half the population of the town doesn’t have a contract. Which is crazy. The council claims that it will talk to all these households and force them to have a bin. Remember. This is a town in the European Union. Year: 2018. I’m not aware of anyone having been given a fine yet. We’ll see.
I created a Facebook page and group launching a civic initiative for a cleaner city.
A few hundred people joined/liked but that’s not so relevant. What is relevant is the number of people I reach with my posts and whether that brings about any changes (see below for more on that).
I created several infographics
to inform the locals about the rules, the dates when they should put out their yellow bags, where to get yellow bags etc. (It’s ridiculous but most people didn’t know.) I shared the infographics on my newly-created communities and existing Facebook groups.
One of the flyers I created and published was about the fact that we have companies that pay for plastic, how much they pay, opening times, addresses etc. That image alone reached over 50,000 people in a week (5 times the population of the town). This is mind-blowing for me.
If you have larger quantities of bricks/earth
(from demolitions), the local council comes to pick it up. Normally, this construction waste is mixed with all sorts of plastic, which the council picks up without asking the owner to separate it first. Then, of course, they dump it in the lake. The fucking lake. However, slowly, there’s communication down the command line to the workers that they shouldn’t pick up everything. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a start.
I asked the council how much recyclable material was collected in the town in the last 24 months.
I wanted to compare month-on-month (Jan 2017 with Jan 2018, Feb 2017 with Feb 2018 etc.) to see whether there’s been a change in the trend and quantities. Then I created a chart to visualize it. The result was very surprising. See for yourself:
From April onmwards there was a massive growth in the quantities of rubbish collected in the yellow bins. This was pretty much time I put most of the effort in publicity, talking to people, starting the Facebook page etc. The quantity grew by 30-90% compared to last year on a month-on-month basis. That means that about three tonnes more recyclable waste gets recycled every month in the town. That’s about 25-35 tonnes per year!
Since only a few months have passed since then, I can’t be sure that the trend is sustained. The next few months will give a clearer answer. But that data won’t lie. It’s the hardcore truth.
Is all this the result of my efforts? Maybe not all. Maybe there’s a natural trend in the right direction as well. But there are certain things that I believe wouldn’t have happened without me pointing them out. Can one single person have a major impact in a town like this? My conclusion is clearly: Yes!
When I talk about financial independence to people who are not into it, they sometimes ask, “Ok, what are you going to do if you’re not working?” My answer would be, “Change the world! Make this planet a better place! Make our communities better!” Because, once you’re FI, you have the time to think about these things and actually do something about them. Once you’re FI your focus shifts from saving and investing towards asking yourself, “What is my purpose in life?”, “What will make me happy in the long run?”
Once you’re FI, additional money won’t make you happy at all. You need to look around for other hobbies…
I’m learning a lot in this process. Making new friends, but also, probably, some enemies. I still have a lot to learn and I often think about all those much more talented people who sell their valuable time to companies that do very little to improve important things in our lives, in our world. Do we really need a new Porsche that has 10 hp more and looks slightly different? Is it worth wasting tens of thousands of engineer-hours on that? Do we really need another energy drink? Do we need that thing called “hover board” that perfectly healthy kids use to move forward?
Do all those intelligent chemists and food engineers have nothing better to do with their lives?
A Challenge: How Can You Change the World?
Instead of working as a lobbyist representing the NRA, weapons manufacturers, the tobacco industry, Nestle etc. why not become FI and do something that makes sense? Why not become a politician and fight for the good?
What really motivates me to take part in and help build an FI community is the hope that some of you out there who are on the way or already FI will spend time to make a change in this world. You’ll have the time and money so it only makes sense to use that and think about what’s truly important and do something about it!
ONE person with not much talent (like me) can make a change in a small community. I believe I am doing that. ONE person with some talent can make a huge change in an even bigger community. Imagine an FI person who actually becomes mayor somewhere just because he wants to change things for the better instead of stealing public money! Imagine a president who’s not interested in corruption or money in general but is there to improve the lives of millions of people.
What are you going to do once you’re FI? What are YOU going to change?
Would you team up with other FIers to work on something great? What would it be?