You can see them on nature trails, carrying a smartphone in one hand and a large plastic bag in the other. These modern hunter-gatherers are after an all-too-common quarry: the trash left behind by others of the human species. Dr. Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute’s Plant and Environmental Sciences Department and Dr. Dima Batenkov of the Mathematics Department are keen on cleaning up Israel’s outdoors; and they’re not alone.
Milo says he goes out at least once a week to pick up trash, either by himself or with his family or research group. “It makes me feel good, so I take every opportunity to clean up,” he says. The social aspect of the project is crucial: not only walking around an adopted area with others, but logging onto the site to post photos and updates on cleaning up, and checking out what other areas have been adopted. The last stage in the website development, says Batenkov, was to link the site to Facebook, so all of one’s friends can see when a path has been cleaned up. For those who cannot commit to adopting a path, the website suggests areas for one-time cleaning up.
The site is based on a concept called “gamification.” As the name implies, the idea is to get more people involved by making cleanup more fun, for example, by getting people to share, on various social media, their positive experiences of picking up trash on a nature trail.
Lately, the idea has blossomed further: Together with another “cleaning patrol,” Milo and Batenkov created “Shani” (an acronym for “keeping Israel clean”). This is a think tank for coming up with solutions not only for cleaning up, but for instilling a culture of cleanliness in the country. At the first meeting, a coalition emerged of representatives of government offices, the army, Keren Kayemet, the Israel Nature Authority, the City without Violence organization, community centers, educational networks, and other NGOs. At the third meeting, held recently in the city of Lod, more than 70 high school students from eight schools attended. Among the various ideas and means the teens encountered at the meeting was a presentation on the Bishvilenu site. “We hope these kids took our ideas home with them,” says Milo.
The meeting ended with the participants dividing up for round-table discussions. At one table, a group from the Umm Batin high school – a school for Bedouin students who come from all over the Negev – suggested organizing a cleanup competition among the classes in their school.
Milo and Batenkov are optimistic: “We are working to reach that critical point – for the site to go viral. We’re not there yet, but projects like this require patience. One day the idea of cleaning up will become ‘cool.’ On that day, we’ll see a revolution in the cleanliness of our landscape here in Israel.”