Thursday, 20 October 2011

Letter to the Editor: Put More Thought Into Coordinating "Green" Events


I had the pleasure of participating in the Cleaner Marina Day clean up of Klang River on Saturday, Oct 15 ("1,250 volunteers come together to clean Port Klang", Star Metro, Oct 17). While I must commend the organisers of this event for managing to mobilise such a large number of volunteers in a relatively short time, it would be hasty to deem the event a "great success".

The organisers claim that "tons of rubbish" were collected by the volunteers, but tons of rubbish were also generated during the event in the form of styrofoam food packets, plastic packaging, PET drinking water bottles, and "goodie bags" filled with advertising and promotional material. When queried about this by some of the more environmentally-aware volunteers, the organisers claimed that they had no control over the packaging and distribution of food and freebies as the said items were provided by sponsors.

It is averred that the organisers and coordinators must set the direction of an environmental event. An environmental event should instil positive change in vendors, sponsors, participants and attendees, while meeting community expectations. Sponsors and vendors should be advised to minimise waste and costs. Minimising waste improves efficiency at an event and reduces the need for sponsorship. Too much money, time and resources are being channelled towards the collection, storage, removal and transportation of rubbish as it is.

At a cleanup campaign such as the Cleaner Marina Day event, the following measures could have been taken to reduce the use and wastage of resources in the first place:

(i) Eliminate the need for goodie bags and t-shirts. Volunteers can be advised to come in old white-shirts and can be given adhesive paper labels to stick on their shirts to identify them as volunteers.

(ii) Almost all the volunteers came with their own drinking water bottles. As such, water refill stations could have been set up to eliminate the need for individual PET drinking water bottles. A bucket of reusable plastic cups can be provided for those who came without water bottles.

(iii) Food should have been provided on reusable tableware. This isn't a very big challenge as the services of a canteen operator or caterer could have easily and just as inexpensively been engaged to supply food using reusable tableware and cutlery. Dirty tableware and utensils can be deposited into bins to be transported back to the canteen or other facility for washing.

(iv) Vegetarian food should have been made available for vegetarian attendees. Food served at an environmental event should ideally be vegan or vegetarian, in line with the principles of a low-impact lifestyle, environmental responsibility and non-violence.

(v) The waste collected and generated at the event should have been separated for recycling and possible composting. Clear signage placed high will help inform attendees of the availability of recycling and waste separation facilities.

(vi) Certificates of appreciation can be e-mailed in soft copy format to sponsors and volunteers, as many may not require a printed version. Instead of giving out promotional and advertising literature in goodie bags, vendors and sponsors can be encouraged to e-mail printable discount coupons and vouchers to volunteers on the mailing list or social network site instead.

Further, the organisers should have not merely advised participants to take public transport and/or carpool, but also educated the boatmen not to leave their boat engines idling for long periods of time while waiting for the participants.

The success of an environmental event should not be measured by the number of sponsors and volunteers, but by the educational value of the event and the permanent changes it makes in the lives of the volunteers and local community. Attendees must be able to make the logical connection between the packaging they dispose of and the rubbish they fished out from the river. The objective of an environmental organisation should never be to have ever-increasing numbers of volunteers to clean up litter from public places, but to achieve such a high level of public and governmental awareness that one day we may never again have a need for a cleanup campaign.

While we acknowledge that planning a large-scale environmental and volunteer-based event is never an easy undertaking, better planning and coordination is needed to ensure that such events in future do not end up becoming mere greenwashing opportunities or feel-good excursions with little benefit to the environment.


Hooks and nets for collecting rubbish with at the back of a pickup truck.

Breakfast served in styrofoam containers. Great, innit? This event generated as much rubbish as it collected.

This is the kind of rubbish we had to collect on Saturday morning. The other kind of rubbish -- we have to vote them out of Parliament.

Boats coming to pick up the volunteers to transport us to our respective stations and areas.

Posing with bin liners -- it's the "in" thing to do at every cleanup campaign.

Me, Petri, Laila and Shawn in our One-Size-Fits-Nobody lifejackets.

Shawn with his Catch of the Day.

Volunteers returning to shore with the rubbish.

You talkin' trash to me, punk? You talkin' trash to me?

We're a bunch of treehuggin' nutjobs! Talk dirty to us!

Do away with the canopies, goodie (i.e. junk) bags, t-shirts, certificates, PET drinking water bottles and styrofoam clamboxes and you might just actually have a truly green event.