Have you ever seen a plastic bag floating across the street? Like some urban tumbleweed, it floats up and down and around. Do you stop and pick it up? Do you walk past it? Garbage and waste are a huge problem in today’s world. We use things, but what should we do when we are done with it? Throwing away a used product is only the beginning of the journey our garbage and waste goes through on a daily basis.
How do nations meet their communities’ needs? Slovakia joined a group of European nations called the European Union or EU since 2004. This means that Slovakia must follow certain standards or regulated rules that are created by the European Parliament, which is kind of like Europe’s Congress. These rules control all of the member nations’ human rights, environmental protection, economic issues and sometimes opinions on war. Because Slovakia belongs to this super alliance, it must follow the rules to be able to receive the benefits and protection the EU can give. One of the rules is waste management.
What community need did I learn about?
How do we get rid of our trash? Where does it go? In a large pile somewhere out of sight? Right in the middle of town? In a trash can? Waste is not a very nice smelling subject to discuss, but how a country and culture handles its waste reveals a lot about its connection to the environment and nature. Slovakia is very unique, because it is visibly two worlds. Much like in the capital city of Bratislava, there is an Old Town and a New Town (Staré Mesto, Nové Mesto); there is an Old Slovakia and a New Slovakia. It’s all rather cool to see. I can see an old woman in traditional folk costume, walking down the street with a chicken in hand. I can also see one of my students checking his Facebook, walking in the other direction.
Hiking in the High Tetras
Why does the community have this need?
This combination of old and new creates interesting ideas of what should be done with garbage. I live in a large village of 6,000 people. There are garbage cans everywhere. Outside of my apartment building are recycling bins for cardboard, paper, plastic and glass. There are also recycling centers where people can exchange plastic and glass bottles for cash. However, if I take a bus outside of town I can see trash everywhere. All along the side of the road are the strangest assortments of things: bottles, couches, cars… You name it, and it’s there. I’ll admit, it’s rather confusing, because there are so many opportunities and places to dispose of garbage. Yet many people choose to dump things in an abandoned corner of a farmer’s field.
There is a lake at the far end of town, and in the spring all of the snow melts revealing so much garbage. It’s rather sad to see the surface of the lake covered in a layer of bottles and waste. But it’s also amazing to watch people go to the lake with garbage bags in hand and pick up all the trash polluting the much-loved lake. They are private citizens, much like the people in the U.S. who take initiative and organize community clean-ups.
But what should we do about all of this garbage? Certainly we shouldn’t just throw it in a river and watch it float away, right? Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose. But how is that any different from throwing things away in a garbage can and having it go to a city dump? This is where Slovak culture and its unique difference between the old generation and the new generation come into play.
Is this need being met? How?
Many things that we in the U.S. think of as cool, new ways to go green are actually standard and normal in Slovakia. For example, reusing plastic bags, composting organic matter, growing your own vegetables, raising your own chickens, reusing clothes and patching up shoes to not buy new ones. These are all standard in Slovakia, whereas at home, they are seen as cool, new green ways of living. Most of my colleagues, students and friends have their shoes re-soled two or three times before buying a new pair and throwing out the old ones. Everyone has a garden, and most grocery stores will charge you for plastic bags. All of these everyday practices are excellent and sustainable ways to protect the environment. They cut down on unnecessary waste and help save money.
However, the Slovaks are accustomed to this way of living mostly because it saves money. Saving the environment and going green are new ideas in Slovakia, and only very modern and young people are aware of this environmental movement. While hiking with my colleagues in the Tatras we saw garbage on the side of the trail. The High Tatras is the gem of Slovakia; all Slovaks love these mountains and visit them at least once a year. Seeing the garbage on the side of the trail deeply offended my friend and made him loudly exclaim, “People are CRAZY! Look at this!” He then picked up the garbage and carried it out of the park with him.
Slovaks love their nature. Many of my students prefer living in small villages because it allows them to be closer to nature. When I asked them how they feel about seeing garbage in the street, some of them said it made them angry. I asked them what they think should be done about it, and they said they couldn’t do anything because people will always throw their garbage on the ground. I asked them if there were any youth groups that would clean up the environment and they all looked confused. I asked them if there were community groups that clean up the trash on the street and they said, “We will clean up the trash with our families if we are walking.”
This is so different compared to where I live in America. There were always organized events, like Community Creek Clean Ups or Earth Day activities for Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops in my community. That simply is not how things are done in my village in Slovakia or in any of the smaller villages nearby. There are very few youth organizations that are sponsored by the community to perform community service projects. Many of the young people here aren’t taught about community organizing, and how even the smallest group of people has the potential to change things. I suspect that’s residual from the communist times when any mention of change was greeted by arrest. The communist government did not allow much freedom for civil society, and the political party controlled all organizations. Hopefully, though, the young people in Slovakia will realize that they can help create the change they want to see in their country.