Imagine having a day to gather your friends, neighbours and acquaintances to improve your own city’s quality of life and keep it clean while also protecting the environment. That’s the idea behind World Cleanup Day, a global event held in over 180 countries in which more than 50 million people have participated since 2018.
In Belgium, 100,000 volunteers across the country took part in the fourth annual edition of the global event on Saturday, 18 September, mobilising city administrations and civil society alike.
Several organisations such as River Cleanup, Eneco Clean Beach Cup, Proper Strand Lopers, World Cleanup Day Belgium, Mooimakers and Be WaPP/Wallonie Plus, together with the administrations of several cities across the country, organised to promote environmental awareness and to clean rivers, lakes, ponds, and city streets.
Cleaning cities all over Belgium
In Ghent, a Belgian city famous for its medieval streets and canals around 300 volunteers with kayaks were called on by the World Cleanup Day organisation in partnership with local NGO DOKano. They collected 600kg of rubbish in the area of Houtdok, where they were focused this year.
Throughout the year, explains Jasmin Lauwaert, advisor of Bram Van Braeckevelt, Deputy Mayor of Staff, Work and Social Economy, Public Cleanliness and Tourism, the City of Ghent has been collaborating with the World Cleanup Day activities for two years, because until then, “we focused more on the Spring cleaning, called Gentsche Gruute Kuis, with people all across the city cleaning their neighbourhood.”
She also explains that in 2021 “we had 1,000 participants and other years we are used to having over 3 thousand people.” The public cleaning company IVAGO organised the event with the support of the city’s Propere Pierkes. Its 600-700 volunteers also organise other waste collection activities throughout the year – in 2019, there were 983 such activities, and last year that rose to 1,553.
In other cities all over Belgium, activities were also held, with 140 people cleaning the streets in Antwerp (and 350kg of waste collected) and Leuven, with 71 volunteers and 180 kg of waste collected, according to the organisation River Clean up.
Ixelles, in the south of Brussels, is a vibrant part of the city, and home to two leading Belgian universities: the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel. For the first time, they decided to join World Cleanup Day.
Sabine Maury, eco-councillor and city project manager in prevention & awareness raising, explains that “in previous years, we usually organised our own Cleanup Day in October. We invite local associations, students, scouts, etc. to participate.”
Like in Ghent, Ixelles also promotes different initiatives throughout the year. Maury explains that “we support different associations and citizen groups who usually organise street clean-ups, and some of them want to go even further, such as ‘Les amis des étangs’ with the cleaning of the pond. Last year, we supported a group of citizens with the clean-up of the Matonge gallery. Next year, we will organise a special clean-up with the schools, and we have specifically chosen Earth Day on 22 April for this event. We are also preparing different initiatives to raise awareness over cigarette butts pollution, during which the butts will be collected and recycled.”
The city has also opened a call for project proposals for a total budget of €15,000 to empower citizens to develop their own waste collection and management initiatives. A jury composed of citizens and municipality employees will select the best projects in the following months.
Maury explains that the city “not only wishes to raise awareness around littering and illegal dumping, but also to communicate about all the alternative waste disposal solutions offered by the municipality, such as our free at-home bulk waste collection service. We also wish to empower citizens to take matters into their own hands and help us make Ixelles cleaner.”
Making the change
Proper Strand Lopers, an organisation founded in 2016 that started as a Facebook group of people who were already cleaning the beaches of Belgium, particularly around Ostend, partnered with the local city council for World Cleanup Day. Timothy Corbisier, the founder of Proper Strand Lopers, adds that they also “have a partnership and good relations with the city council and a project together in the summer, called Beach Heroes. We have a cabin on the beach, in a crowded and touristic place. Every night we open the cabin from 8-9 pm so people can participate in a cleanup because we see that the cleaning workers from Ostend only clean until right about that time, and if the weather is fine, people remain on the beach. A lot of waste is left behind.”
“Through this summer project, we try to prevent waste from lying there and getting into the sea. Ostend has cleaning machines, but they only start working in the morning, so there’s a big gap where leftovers can wash into the sea,” Corbisier explains further.
They also advise the city about waste management. The municipality then disposes of everything that their volunteers collect. During World Cleanup Day, their volunteers gathered several kilos of waste that Ostend then managed.
The River Cleanup organisation gathered 5,200 volunteers for this year’s World Cleanup Day. They have also been mobilised to help collect waste from the flooded-affected regions of the northeast of Belgium, having gathered over 15,000 kg of garbage. Thomas de Groote, the founder of River Cleanup, believes that “more or less 2 or 3kg was collected by each volunteer in Flanders and five times higher in Wallonia because of the floods” during World Cleanup Day.
“We see a lot of positive collaboration with cities all over Belgium,” says de Groote. Cities, he adds, “facilitate actions, helping us collect the waste after actions. The cities also give material to volunteers, such as gloves and bags, and sometimes even the mayor or aldermen join activities, such as in Antwerp or Leuven. We both used it to show citizens that it is fun to join. It’s a good thing to do. We had maybe four aldermen joining activities during World Cleanup Day.”
Activities such as World Cleanup Day help raise awareness on urban pollution and waste management, open the doors to a dialogue on the need to care more about the environment and give tools for effective action. The partnership of civil society organisations and cities – such as Antwerp, Ghent and Ostend – is fundamental for the efforts to be successful and gain the publicity necessary for good actions to be continuously reproduced.