It’s not at all surprising that waste management and aggressive garbage clean-up efforts have traditionally taken a back seat on southeast Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, a beautiful but frequently unstable geographic and cultural region home to several republics on the mend from — and in some cases, continuing to struggle with — decades of governmental corruption, ethnic inequality, environmental degradation and bloody conflicts within the former Yugoslavia.

Simply put, there’s been more pressing issues to worry about in the Balkans than run-of-the-mill rubbish and the headlines — some rather recent — have paint a rather grim, garbage-strewn picture:

“Bucharest street suffocated by 300 tonnes of trash”

“Macedonia’s river rubbish makes waves in Greece”

“Rubbish tsunami threatens Bosnian town”

“Bulgaria facing mounting rubbish threat”

Yet as recently reported by Arthur Nelson for the Guardian, a handful of waste-ridden Balkan countries have seen the rise of grassroots “trash activists” that, in the absence of government action, have reached beyond frayed and war-ravaged borders with one singular mission: cleaning up that godawful mess.

A couple of select instances highlighted by the Guardian:

Banded together under Let’s Do It!, the Baltic-borne (squeaky-clean Estonia, to be exact) “civic-led mass movement” behind World Cleanup Day, a huge number of concerned Kovovan and Albanian citizens — a whopping 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively, of each self-declared/recognized country’s populations — took to their shared border this past April for a massive trash clean-up along a lake once described as an “open gate for criminality.”

Earlier this year in Croatia, a sizable army of (mostly) student volunteers numbering 55,000-strong took to that country’s lakes, forests, rivers and world-class beaches to remove 37,000 metric tons of household refuse, furniture, unexploded artillery and approximately one discarded corpse.

In 2012, another Let’s Do It! campaign saw nearly 14 percent of Slovenia’s population (politicians, celebrities, professional athletes and members of the Slovenian Army included) brandish rubber gloves and rash bags for a day-long assault on illegal garbage dumps. Considering that the population of Slovenia — a touch Balkan country often more aligned with Austria than with its southern neighbors — hovers just above 2 million, roughly 280,000 citizens all cleaning up garbage on the same day is quite the commendable effort.

Two years prior, in 2010, 200,000 brave Romanian citizens joined together under surveillance of the secret service in a Let's Do It!-organized clean-up effort that has since garnered comparisons to the communist regime-ousting Romanian Revolution of 1989 in terms of its sheer size. As Let's Do It! explains: "The success of the venture also led to surprising reinvigoration of the country’s social, economic and environmental framework."

Today, the Let's Do It! global network extends to 113 countries, either boasting active teams or teams in the midst of "setting up." (The U.S. and Canada fall into the latter camp.) This includes all of Europe, save for Poland and Ireland. Since the foundation of Let’s Do It! in 2008 when 50,000 Estonians took to the streets — and to the forests — in search of errant waste to retrieve and properly discard, 16 million people have volunteered their time to the movement. (Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal and Slovenia were among the the first countries to follow in Estonia's formidable footsteps). The organization hopes to see 150 countries participate on the next World Cleanup Day, due to take place Sept. 8, 2018.

Says Jaka Kranjc of Ecologists Without Borders, a Ljubljana-based nonprofit that spearheaded Slovenia's monumental group clean-up in 2012 alongside Let's Do It!:

“The best thing about this movement is that it bridges borders and breaks national barriers. When Bosnia had a clean up, they had to talk to several regional administrations and all the minorities cooperated, even though the country had been a war zone just ten years ago.”

The Guardian goes on to note that environmental groups in Bosnia now host annual clean-up events while in Albania — a vastly impoverished country positioned not-so-long ago to become Europe’s shared garbage dump — there are litter removal efforts held every six months.

It would seem that amongst the most tense and divided of the Balkan states, litter, of all things, has become a great unifier — a “common foe” as the Guardian puts it.

One country seemingly MIA from the Great Balkan Rubbish War, however, is Serbia. Although homegrown waste activists mobilized for a country-wide clean-up event in 2011, Kranjc explains that more recent grassroots efforts have since largely been snuffed out by the government:

“Serbian volunteers started preparing their actions afterwards but then the government realised this was a good idea and hijacked it. The activists were shut out and it turned into a one-off public programme that was never repeated.”

Aside from regularly occurring civic waste clean-up "happenings" such as those organized by Let’s Do It! movement and like-minded organizations, some residents of southeast Europe are taking matters into their own hands, particularly when it comes to tackling food waste — that is, preventing expired and unsightly foods from entering landfills or being prematurely chucked.

On the Croatia-Slovenia border, environmentalist Igor Barbara is using spoiled supermarket produce as a means of stopping wild boars and marauding bears with big appetites from wreaking havoc in his small village.

“Annually we get around two tonnes of food for the bears, wild boars, red deer and roe deer to eat. This is just a supplement to what these animals can find in the forest, but it prevents problems between villagers and bears,” Barbara tells the Guardian. “A good way to prevent the bears from coming into the villages is to leave apples out for them in the forest.”

As they might say around the Balkans, one man’s trash is another man’s bear-satiating secret weapon.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Balkan countries wage all-out war against litter
Albania, Croatia and others set aside past differences to conquer rampant waste.