When MSI in held its first environmental cleanup in August 2013, it had a grand mission: to inspire people to take an active role in ensuring a clean, green and beautiful environment. Monthly cleanups were seen to be the best way to do this. In January 2017, after conducting 28 cleanups with the local government environmental offices’ support, collecting 10,000 tonnes of street litter, we concluded that we had to go back to the drawing board. Why? The cleanups weren’t working. Yes, we were inspiring people to clean up the environment, raising awareness on the importance of it but if the environment was to remain clean long-term, we needed a better approach.
As this truth was dawning on us, albeit painfully, the Nairobi government started doing monthly cleanups using an approach similar to ours. I watched and participated with interest to see the process and the results. The results were the same as ours. In 2019, the government-led environmental cleanups were initiated again. While they continue to date, the approach used is still similar to ours and so are the results. Let me explain.
This is how typical cleanups are carried out in Nairobi. A cleanup location is identified. On a particular day, members of the public meet, clean up the place together with the area residents. After they have cleaned up, they leave. (The next cleanup will be a month later but in another location). I can guarantee you that after a week (at most) later, the area cleaned up is no different from how it was before the cleanup event. This is the result I’ve been seeing time and time again. It is so because cleanup events are just band aids. They don’t address the issues that lead to the dirty area. Hence my conclusion that a ‘cleanup’ is not the same as a ‘cleanup program’.
Although used interchangeably, the terms ‘cleanup’ and ‘cleanup program’ are different. A cleanup is a one-time event while a cleanup program is an on-going project that requires the effort to be maintained. What MSI was doing, what organizations participating in environmental cleanups do, and what the local government is currently doing are ‘cleanup events’. If this approach doesn’t change, the non-transformational impact associated with these cleanup events will remain.
A cleanup program doesn’t just focus on cleanups. It focuses on putting in structures that will continue to keep the area clean after the cleanup event is over. You might do a sterling cleanup somewhere but if you don’t address underlying issues that lead to the area being dirty in the first place, the effort is similar to that of putting water into a bucket with holes with the hope of filling it. To avoid this, we need to create city-wide cleanup programs. More specifically neighbourhood cleanup programs (NCP’s). Why neighbourhood cleanup programs? One, most cleanup events organized in Nairobi are done in neighbourhoods. Two, they give everyone in that particular neighbourhood an opportunity to contribute, instilling and cultivating neighbourhood pride. Three, and most importantly, they keep the neighbourhood clean, all day and night due to increased accountability translating to the whole of Nairobi. Through NCP’s, there should be provision of services and infrastructure that promote environmental cleanliness. Putting up structures like litter bins and services like regular waste collection and street cleaning, will go a long way into ensuring the area remains clean long after the cleanup event.
In addition to NCP, the Polluter’s Pays Principle (PPP) should be effected – “An environmental policy which requires that the cost of pollution be borne by those who cause it”. This would work very well in the highly polluted Nairobi River. Cleaning up the river is a gross waste of time and resources if the polluters are not done away with.
Cleanup programs are much better than cleanup events. The government should look into making NCP’s the driving force behind a clean Nairobi.