The Litter Movement shows that having faith is not the main thing in good deeds, but doing something is key. Read this story if you doubt that a single person could change the world.
In 1996, there was so much broken glass and so many cigarette stubs on Hietaniemi beach that a mother, Tuula-Maria Ahonen, had to ban her little kids from walking barefoot on the beach. The family started picking up rubbish, and noticed that cleaning up made them feel good.
Later, the mother and her daughters noticed how littered a rock near their home was.
Helsinki must look tidy when granny comes for a visit, Ilona (12) said.
Tidying up the rock seemed almost hopeless, but Ahonen had an idea:
If every person picks up a piece of litter every day, our living environment would look completely different.
The Litter Movement (in Finnish the name Roska Päivässä means “a piece of litter every day”) was founded in April 2000, and at the suggestion of Ahonen’s daughter, Iisa (9), it soon expanded all over the world.
In 2019, the website of the Litter Movement has been translated by volunteers into more than 20 languages already. The Finnish-language Facebook page of the movement has 6000 followers. In addition, many more people have announced their involvement in the Litter Movement without any links to social media. For example, Ahonen has toured in schools, libraries and apartment buildings to talk about this cause. There are no records about the total number of enthusiasts, so it is impossible to estimate the actual amount of people involved in the Litter Movement.
The Litter Movement that was launched in the Pohjois-Haaga suburb of Helsinki by a mother and her two daughters has grown into a global environmental movement of “heart and conscience”.
Just taking action is enough, even if you stop having faith.
When we started picking up rubbish, we didn’t believe it would be possible to tidy up even an individual rock. That’s why there aren’t any “before” pictures of the initial situation. But even if we didn’t have faith, it was enough that we did something. I started on my own, and at the end, there were more than 100 people helping me. By now, we’ve been looking after the rock together for 13 years already. Ahonen proudly says.
Ahonen has represented the Litter Movement twice already at the Finnish Independence Day celebrations: first invited by President Tarja Halonen in 2009, and also invited by President Sauli Niinistö in 2018. During Niinistö’s presidential election campaign, Niinistö’s campaign team named the Litter Movement as a “Finnish deed”.
The Movement has also gained an international reputation. Ahonen lists the contacts she has received from all around the world: for example, from India, the US, Denmark and Spain. On World Environment Day on 5 June, Ahonen has been invited to Iceland, to share information about the Litter Movement.
Civic engagement at the birth place of the Litter Movement
A littering inspection in Pohjois-Haaga shows that the Movement is alive and well. The rock where Ahonen’s work began is unusually tidy for Helsinki. There is hardly any loose rubbish or cigarette stubs around the “decorated rubbish bins”. Many people we meet along the way greet Ahonen.
Quite a few local businesses are also involved in the work of the Litter Movement: the barber shop Parturi-Kampaamo Puoti distributes mini rubbish bins to its clients, and K-Supermarket Pohjois-Haaga is involved in fighting against littering with decorated rubbish bins.
Ahonen herself is quite astonished how such a small and simple thing can encourage people to put their rubbish in the bin.
A small stub is a big threat to the environment
Cigarette stubs are the most common rubbish in the world, and a hazardous waste due to the toxic compounds they contain. Ahonen says that some people boast about throwing the stubs down storm drains, out of sight:
Just because the stubs are no longer visible doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. From the storm drains, the environmental toxins and plastics in the stubs are absorbed by the soil and groundwater. Several studies have been carried out regarding the effect of small plastic particles on animals. The problem is visible if a fisherman finds a whole cigarette stub in the belly of a fish he’s caught, but the effect of microplastics on living organisms is also a topical and alarming issue.
Picking up litter is important in many ways.
Picking up rubbish is psychologically wonderful, and also good for getting some fresh air, exercise and peace of mind. On many levels, the positive effect extends to yourself, as well as to those who see the actions. Ahonen contemplates.
Many celebrities have accepted the invitation of the Litter Movement. However, not everyone wants to be visibly profiled as a member of the Litter Movement. For Ahonen, public influencers are an important issue. She quotes Martin Luther King:
The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.
One of the most visible actions of the litter movement is distributing mini bins to smokers. Ahonen holds Mini Rubbish Bin workshops at libraries, community halls, apartment buildings and youth centres, and encourages others to do the same.
A journalist of Deep Helsinki picked up a metal tab from a drinking can and was praised by Ahonen:
That sort of a metal tab could get stuck on a bird’s beak, for example, preventing it from getting food.
It is unknown whether the journalist saved one bird from starvation, but it is certain that litter on the ground can no longer be ignored. No litter is too small to be picked up! You can use your mini bin to make sure the litter ends up in waste collection.
Are you interested in the Litter Movement? Have a closer look:
Cigarette stubs and environment:
Journalist & Storyteller