Armed with bags, trash grabbers and a goal to pick up litter on the streets, Aljona Zueva had an idea to take a different approach of how she can clean up the waste in her city’s streets. With a passion for this idea, Aljona founded Rohelinnin 2018, an NGO with the goal of making Tallinn a cleaner and greener city by removing garbage from the streets. Rohelinn takes a different approach to this common way of keeping cities clean, as it combines picking up trash with fun experiences.
The EU Green Capital Secretariat interviewed her to get to know more about Aljona’s experience and passion for green initiatives.
Although she does not have any educational or professional background in sustainability, Aljona is now fully involved in various green initiatives. She first got introduced to sustainability while being enrolled in the Erasmus programme in Norway, by some friends who showed her how to be a part of sustainability care.
How did everything start?
Rohelinn originally didn’t start out as a fun way to pick up trash. In the spring of 2018, after walking around, seeing lots of garbage under her feet and picking up a full trash bag, she thought that more people should follow her lead. It was right at the time of challenges on social media, where you would invite your friends to take the challenge up and then nominate other friends. Aljona nominated a few of her friends to pick up some trash, but everyone wasn’t as enthusiastic as her.
“I like the idea, but I don’t like pickup up trash with my hands, it’s someone else’s trash,” her husband said and suggested that people should pick up the trash with grabbers, keeping the initiative more sanitary and eye-catching. She then started, along with her family and friends to pick up trash in various places.
Catching the attention of neighbours and people around the city with the trash grabbers, Aljona realised that there are even more ways to make the simple task more eye-catching, and even fun. Picking up trash “sticks to your mind more when it’s attached to a fun activity, instead of ‘oh I’m picking up trash,’ it’s ‘oh it’s not trash picking, it’s also a fun game,’ and people start noticing more about the trash, what kind of trash is on the ground, what more people can do,” Aljona explains. Activities such as blogging, city tours while picking up trash, and making a 10 day suitably challenge all ways the Rohelinn makes the projects green and an enjoyable experience.
Rohelinn hosts events to make picking up trash fun for everyone. One of the many events that Rohelinn holds is Trash Dance. “We have a Zumba trainer who comes to the park and does open training to everyone whose there, music is all over the place, people are so cheerful, and everyone dances together. Then we give them sticks and pick up trash in the park,” as Aljona explains.
One of Rohelinn’s missions is environmental education and protecting the planet for future generations. “Only when you start doing it, you cannot unsee the garbage around you”, she recalls. You also bring people all along with you, it’s a way to involve new generations.
According to Aljona, taking apart of lessons that occur outside the formal school system makes the idea stick more in your brain. “It’s fun for the children, but they also learn something new. They learn to analyse their carbon footprint,” she says. Teaching children how to sort trash or their impact on the environment is a huge success, Aljona says that “children are actually wanting to take their parents to pick up trash.” Events that Rohelinn puts together can be something that the whole family does together. In addition to that, children themselves are also a motivation to move forward and find new ideas to get involved in sustainability.
“Some people think that it is difficult to have an environmentally friendly style of living, but it’s not.” Aljona recommends on taking the journey towards being more sustainable step by step and one day at a time. “There are always resources, people just don’t know where to look,” she says.
Rohelinn currently has four employees but has plans on expanding. During big events, volunteers ranging from students to those who are passionate about Rohelinn’s mission, come and help. They also have plans on expanding outside of Tallinn and into all of Estonia and neighbouring countries as well.
They are pairing up with Estonia Precious Plastic, a recycling community also located in Tallinn which makes useful things from plastic, to have a city-wide cleanup, ending the day by making products with all the trash that was picked up. Rohelinn also gives Filaret, a green-tech company that upcycles cigarette butt waste into 3D printing filament, all the cigarette butts that they pick up off the streets.
With her fun and inspiring project, Aljona is showing a brand-new side of sustainability, on her way to convince more people to take part of it. As she told us, Tallinn’s title as European Green Capital 2023 is inspiring people to get to know more about what they can do on a sustainability level.