Rubbish Is The New Black

Greta, Gayle and Michela holding the We're In sign pre-Earth Garden.

My experience working on waste (or rather resources) management at Earth Garden 2015.

I guess you could say it all started last year when I was absolutely horrified at the post-Earth Garden (a 3-day festival in Malta) photos showing overflowing bins and rubbish all over the Ta’ Qali National Park. Appalled, I posted a rant on Facebook as I felt that this should never happen at a supposedly Earth-friendly festival.

Gayle, my girlfriend, a sustainability consultant for several festivals, had set her targets on Earth Garden from late last summer, driven by an intense wish to make this year’s festival greener. Admiring her courage to take on such a mammoth task (1,500 campers and around 20,000 attendees) and wanting to support her (and this cause rather than being an armchair critic) played seesaw in my brain with the knowledge of what being involved actually meant and my own reservations to that.

Did I really want to spend 3 days (plus preparation, set up, cleanup and pack down) wheeling bins around, carrying and setting up recycling stations, being responsible for other people’s discarded items and doing a job many (including at times, myself) considered lowly?

Gayle’s plan was to set up 27 of her reclaimed door bin stations over the sizeable festival area at Ta’ Qali National Park. This would encourage and make it clear and easy for, attendees to separate their waste so that as much of it as possible could be recycled. She also wanted to educate both attendees and vendors through a Facebook campaign and vendor policies, encouraging self-responsibility, care for the site and minimising waste.

The challenges? A limited budget combined with the Maltese population’s notorious littering habit. Could she pull it off? Did I have the dedication, determination and mental strength to be an integral part of this?

Turns out she could and I did. The Earth Garden is Getting Greener campaign on Facebook attracted over 4,000 people and succeeded in bringing the issue to the forefront with both festival-goers and vendors. Thousands (final number still pending) of kilos of metal, plastic, glass and organic matter were diverted from landfill and sent for recycling or composting and the site was noticeably cleaner than previous years.

With festival, cleanup and pack down now over, the following are some of my reflections from this very intense but also extremely rewarding experience:

  1. I now have a new appreciation and gratitude for anyone dealing with our discarded items. Bin men, street cleaners and toilet attendants all over have earned my most sincere respect. Day in, day out they accomplish what I physically and mentally struggled to do for just three days. They do it with humility, matter of fact-ness and great efficiency. Thank these people sincerely whenever you encounter them.
  1. My journey to disassociate my self-worth from my ‘day-job’ is still ongoing. When I first quit my marketing manager job in a hotel management company to travel and later work freelance, I really struggled with finding my identity away from my job. I was no longer a marketing manager; I was a traveler, a writer, and a freelance marketer, most of all a human being. I could no longer hide behind a brand, a role that was familiar and respected. I had to show up as myself. Handling rubbish at a festival for three days really tested me. What were the friends I met at the festival thinking when they saw me carrying great big garbage bags through the festival site and clearing dirty tables? Did they think my freelance business was failing and I had to resort to doing a cleaning job on the side? Weren’t there bigger, less physical, cleaner, more important jobs I should be doing rather than this? Did I smell? My mental chatter uncovered how much of my identity is still linked with my work and my own discrimination based on job type. It’s great practice to challenge this often.
  1. I got over much of my aversion to dirt and rubbish. I had feet soaked in beer from leaking bags (why oh why did so many people throw away half-empty beer cans?), stood inside a skip to retrieve items that did not belong there, fished inside countless rubbish bags in an effort to sort the contents and stuck most of my body inside dirty bins. I also learnt how to swing a rubbish bag into a skip like a semi-pro. Hugely proud of myself and newly armed with a code of conduct around rubbish: separate with great strictness, clean whatever will be recycled and for goodness’ sake make sure you close those rubbish bags securely.
Greta wheeling a bin at Earth Garden 2015.
Dusty, dirty, wheeling bins.
  1. On a related note, decomposing raw meat really stinks. Use and dispose of it mindfully (dear campers, best check that you can have a bbq / stove before taking that pack of chicken breast with you).
  1. At my lowest moments when I felt like I had no more physical or mental energy, help magically showed up. Finding Rica sorting rubbish in the campsite and her continuing to help on our rounds with so much dedication lifted my spirits exactly at the time I wanted out and felt completely overwhelmed by the task at hand. Same with all the people who offered to help carry bags, move bins around and tip bins into bags. It was heartwarming and incredible to see people offer to help with dirty jobs, some at 6 am, drunk, after having been up all night. Also very grateful for the whole team for being awesome and for Peter Paul from Tribali letting us use his much loved van to clear the campsite from rubbish. Truly humbling. Lesson: do offer help whenever you feel compelled to rather than standing back thinking your help is not needed or is insignificant. It will probably have a bigger impact than you could ever imagine.
  1. My body can do much more than my mind let me believe but there’s a price to pay for lack of self care. I powered through a chesty cold, worked long hours, slept very little, ate very little, carried a lot, walked a big lot, wheeled big bins. Every time I felt my energy was totally spent, mental boosts powered me up, showing me how much is really all in the mind. I was amazed at how my body could cope and it did. Except I ended up in bed feeling like death warmed up after it all. Do challenge your body but take radical care of it when you do. And learn to say no when you need to.
  1. The stuff people throw away is absolutely crazy. From barely-eaten food, to sealed bottles of water, countless camping air beds to the winner – a whole, beautifully decorated cake in a cake box, so much good stuff is thrown away. No wonder people can manage to live off dumpster diving. We also made all of the bin stations using discarded items: doors and wood panels rescued from WasteServ’s civic amenity sites, pallets, discarded paints and bed sheets from a charity shop. One man’s waste is another man’s treasure and we should use channels that assist in things being reused and create more systems to make this flow easy.
Peter Paul's van bursting with rubbish from the campsite. Definitely the zone most ripe for improvement next year.
Peter Paul’s van bursting with rubbish from the campsite. Definitely the zone most ripe for improvement next year.
  1. If it’s important to you, do it. Taking on a big task and leaping into unknown territory means there is great potential for big rewards, big impact and big learning. Gayle taking on this task set the wheels in motion for me, and the absolutely fabulous, kind and amazing team (without whom we never would have coped), to step up and make real change. Sticking to what you know gets you nowhere new and challenging your limits invites others to do the same and to support you in doing so. Never underestimate the impact that just one person deciding to take that leap can make.