The focus of this article will be both of my experiences doing environmental volunteering and to justify the importance of participating in such initiatives in order to promote environmental conscience.
Portuguese Style Cleaning
My first experience with environmental volunteering came with the cleaning of public spaces in my hometown, Setúbal. The initiative I participated in was organized by Setúbal’s municipality and by the Portuguese Association for Environmental Inspection and Prevention, in an action called “Amar Setúbal” (“To Love Setúbal” in English). The goal was to gather volunteers to clean the beaches of Albarquel and Rainha, by collecting litter that had been scattered by beach ongoers. The areas to clean were the beaches, its surroundings and access areas. The action took place in the morning of the 1st of May 2015, between 9am and 1pm. The municipality gave the participants all necessary materials for cleaning, including bags, gloves and litter pick-up tools. The meeting point was the car park of Albarquel Beach. Only twelve people came to the initiative, even though all of them were extremely motivated. Some of them were also excited about it because they were doing it with their families.
From the beginning all of the participants were mesmerized by the quantity of litter left in a space that is a candidate to the UNESCO World Heritage distinction, the Arrábida Natural Park. In four hours of cleaning, we found everything from cigarette butts, condoms, plastic bottles, boxes of Mcdonald’s, underwear and, oddly enough, a shotgun box. It was also clear that some people had been camping there but leaving all the litter behind.
There was also an odd moment where a middle-aged man in a bicycle saw me and another volunteer picking up litter and shouted: “Finally they sent someone to clean this mess!”. I was shocked by the disdain in his voice and also felt like shouting back “I’m here because I want to”, but somehow realised that he would probably not understand my reaction.
Meanwhile, in January 2016, I moved to the Czech Republic, where I am now an EVS volunteer, and in April I ended up repeating the experience. This time the goal was to clean the Montaci forest in Náchod, in “Ukliďme Montaci”. This is the local action that represents a national scale initiative named “Ukliďme svět, ukliďme Česko”.
“Ukliďme svět, ukliďme Česko” is a volunteering environmental cleaning action that takes place all over the Czech Republic. Its objective is to clean up public spaces like forests or lakes. The last action of this initiative took place during the weekend of the 16th and 17th of April.
The meeting point was the petrol station and the action also took place at 9am. This time, the number of volunteers was even smaller, with only four people participating. We guessed people didn’t want to be bothered with sleeping fewer hours on Saturday, and chose to stay home instead.
Nevertheless, nothing stopped us from performing our task, even though we noticed that some cleaning had been done prior to our arrival. Throughout the whole walk to Bonato Hotel, the only litter I spotted were cigarette butts, plastic bottles and some paper. I also noticed that this time I didn’t get as tired, probably because this time there wasn’t much we could clean. We managed to clean all the mess in the mountain, including the river and some accessing roads next to it at around 11.30am.
Benefits of Giving Back to Nature
From my personal point of view, there’s also a big advantage in volunteering for environmental causes, which is the fact that you feel that you really are contributing to a bigger cause without compromising your emotional health and well-being. Emotionally, cleaning a forest or a beach is always less demanding than volunteering in a hospital with cancer patients, for example. And it probably takes less training to do as well.
Initiatives like these also bring some social benefits to volunteers like the possibility of making new acquaintances, contacts or friends and also of sharing good moments with family members, as I was able to witness.
Some studies have shown that people who volunteer usually live longer and are generally healthier, but the biggest impact I felt from this experience was my will to explore my surroundings. As a foreigner living in the Czech Republic, volunteering in “Ukliďme” did make a difference when it comes to my appreciation of the Czech Republic. I will definitely say that I feel more part of the local community now.
Not Everyone is Willing to Help
This also takes me to another sad thing in volunteering for environmental causes, which is the feeling of frustration it can sometimes bring when everyone around us thinks the idea is really good, but ends up not being engaged in helping and actively changing the situation they complain about.
Nevertheless, by the end of the experience, we all felt exhausted but also felt that we had just done something really important for our community and wanted to do it again, if possible.
Deep in Mud
Another disadvantage of the experience came when my trainers got soaked in mud while I was searching for litter next to the river. Despite this, I still want to participate in upcoming initiatives like this, solely because I like the feeling I get from performing these tasks for the environment and the local community.
The only disadvantage I can think of is that the cleaning will force you to renounce to a few hours of sleep, at least in case you are a “sleep in all morning” kind of person.
Don’t Complain, Just Act
Ultimately, and in case I managed to convince you to participate in these environmental cleaning actions, you must also know that you won’t have to pay for any materials for the cleaning being that gloves and 10l bags will be supplied to each participant. At the end of the experience you will be rewarded with some food and beverages as well. However, bear in mind that no stain remover will be given in case you get your feet deep in mud.