How does a British firefighter start a successful garbage collection project on the banks of the river Tisza in Hungary? Ian Davies and his Hungarian wife, Edina, told us all about the ‘Tisza Tidy Up’ project, the environment-friendly and plastic-free life, the difficulties of the task to collect the garbage on the river, and the future of our Earth. The couple, who live in a small town by the Tisza, collect waste together with their children and with up to 15-20 volunteers during the weekends, tirelessly cleaning the riverbank. They believe that the many small things we can do for our environment individually add up in the end and create a bigger result.
How did you end up in Hungary? Had you ever been here before you moved here and started the ‘Tidy Up’ project?
Ian Davies: I was in the fire service in the UK for a good 25 years, and we moved when I came up for retirement, we had been coming to Hungary for holidays, obviously Edina’s family is here, we knew the area. We have two young children, so we hoped that they would grow up around their grandparents and of course Csongrád is a beautiful town and the river was a big attraction as well. So we moved here three years ago.
So you never thought that the kids would have better chances in the UK than in Hungary?
I.D.: Obviously, there were pros and cons when we made the decision. But our vision was to bring them here, because we used to live in Watford, just outside London, which is very busy. And here, we love the nature, the environment, and I think when we see them growing up here, it’s just a much more peaceful place for them.
Edina Davies: This quiet life is what we wanted for our children. Even though it might not be the same life and same chances as in the UK, I do believe they will get these chances here as well. In my view, it is more important how we bring them up, emotionally, and it is a priority to give them a calm, safe, nature-friendly, happy childhood.
I.D.: The river is literally on our doorstep here, 25 meters or so away.
So is that how the waste collection started? You walked by the river and saw all the plastic coming down on the Tisza?
I.D.: Yes, exactly.
We were just out for a walk in the morning with the children and we noticed that there was a lot of plastic flowing down the river in the middle, and then coming to the shore and collecting among the trees and bushes.
I took a photo and made a post on Facebook in the evening and then a lot of people were making comments, and in fact, it was Edina who said why don’t we do something.
And that’s what we were hoping to do, that’s what we are doing now. First, we created an event. It was a week-long event, and we had a really good response from friends and locals to that. But at the end of the week there was still a lot of work to do and obviously a lot of refuse still in the river, so we decided to form a group.
How many people help you on the weekends?
I.D.: It varies. We had some difficulties with the Covid restrictions, we stopped meeting as a big group. I mean, even though we were out in the open on the riverbank, we felt that we shouldn’t risk anyone’s health and scaled it down a little bit. But usually 15-20 people are there, the children as well.
So they already know how big this problem is?
I.D.: Yes, the children are already very aware, even at their young age, that this is a bad thing. They know about environmental problems, recycling, and I think since being out with the group, their education on these topics has even improved. It is a positive thing for them to be involved.
E.D.: Sometimes, when they wanted different toys, they would like to buy these really cheap toys that come with magazines and I always told them, there is no point in buying those, because they will break in a day or two. And then what’s going to happen to it? So we thought about these problems together and now
the children understand that plastic will not go away unless we do something about it. They know that what we don’t collect here, can go down to the sea.
Although the refuse disappears from our eyesight, it will still be there. And someone’s got to do something. If we stop buying it, it’s really the only way to make a change.
This is what the future generation thinks of disposable plastic.
Are you living a plastic free, or zero waste lifestyle?
E.D.: Well, we are trying. I don’t think we are that good yet, but we are really trying.
I was just wondering, isn’t it weird to go into the supermarket and see all those plastic bottles, thinking that in a couple of days you might see them on the shore?
E.D.: Yes, and you know,
some people still don’t really think before buying anything. They should think about things like how many times will I use it? Do I really need that bottled water? Most of the plastic waste we collect is single use. They are used for a minute, discarded and can end up in the ocean, and it takes thousands of years to break down.
I.D.: Actually, when we started the project, there were some negative responses – very little, but they were there. Only in the fact that people were blaming other countries further upstream on the Tisza for the plastic waste that was coming here. And our point was in our response that
in a way we are all responsible for what’s in the river, because we all use plastic items. So our point was not to blame anyone else, but just go out to the riverbank and do our bit to try and improve things.
And like Edina said, what we do not collect here, will continue its journey further down to other countries, into the Danube, and eventually to the sea.
E.D.: Yes, and believe it or not, someone even suggested in the comments that we should just push it off and let someone else collect it.
Really? It’s unbelievable. After this, I have to ask you: have you ever thought about it that your work is pointless?
I.D.: Sure, yes. I think especially when we first started. We were often at the riverbank in not very nice conditions, and we could still just see the plastic coming down the center of the river and just coming and coming and coming. And we just saw that what we are doing here, compared to what is actually happening further up river and the wider environment, it’s just the very tip of the iceberg. It did feel very overwhelming. But we have managed to carry on. It is I think, mainly because of the volunteers, the locals, and the big sense of community.
What do you think, whose work should it be to collect the waste? You are doing it as activists, civilians, but surely there could be resources.
E.D.: People are always asking who should be picking it up instead of us? But that thinking is wrong, the idea that someone else should be doing it.
It’s true that the town could do it, or help, or send down workers to do it. But you could do this with everything: someone else should stop making plastic bottles, or stop selling them.
If we all do something, let’s say not buy plastic, or pick up the waste, and as individuals take responsibility, I do believe we can get somewhere.
I.D.: Sometimes, on grey, rainy days, when it can be a little bit depressing to collect waste on the shore and we might think that it is someone else’s job, it would be the easy option to just give up, but we are ever hopeful that there will be involvement from much higher up, such as the banning of single use plastic all together. Until then, we are here on the ground and will keep on tidying our area. It’s actually a very small portion of the Tisza.
How long is this area exactly?
I.D.: You can go either way from where we live for a few kilometers and you can find refuse. There is a very nice riverbank here, with a walkway and cycle path that many people use for their leisure activities. From there, you can see where the waste collects. That was our starting point. We are now making headway with clearing that.
So what’s next?
I.D.: On the other side of the riverbank, where it is just forest, when the water level came up, the plastic waste deposited in the forest. Even though you can’t really see it, it is there. We have already started there, so that would be our next area. It’s much more difficult over there, because the vegetation is much thicker, you have to search more for the waste. But we have fairly determined volunteers.
And I have to add that we do have some help from the local council- the deputy mayor is often on the riverbank with us, helping. And at the start of all this, they offered their help for when we have collected the waste, we can put it at the top of the riverbank for them to collect.
Why have you stopped the cooperation?
I.D.: As time went by, we were getting more and more uncomfortable with doing that, because we weren’t aware exactly what happened to the waste once it was picked up. Then, we were contacted by the organization PET Cup (PET Kupa). We went to meet them and we went to one of their recycling centers. They gave us advice and showed us how to separate the waste correctly. From that moment we started to collect plastic from the river and store it, and they offered to take the waste away when we had enough and recycle it properly. It’s a much better option for us and the environment. The council still however collect the non recyclable waste for us.
You had a really positive response to the initiative, and interviews and videos appeared of the group in the media, I guess that also helps.
I.D.: Yes, after all the media appearances the response was huge and a bit overwhelming. A lot of attention came to the group, which is a good thing, a lot of new people joined us after this. Group meetings are communicated in English but being part of the group is a positive in helping me to fit into the community.
And how’s your Hungarian?
I.D.: Let’s say, the group’s English is better than my Hungarian. (laughs)
Either way, it seems you fit into the community. But expats also know you, because even the British Embassy posted about the ‘Tidy Up’ project.
I.D.: Yes, they did. And I also read with interest one of your previous interviews with Paul Fox, the British Ambassador to Hungary. It seems he is quite a big football fan, just like me. His team [Tottenham Hotspurs – ed.] is a big rival for my team, West Ham United. And I have to say that my team, for the first time in a long time, has finished one place above them in the league. But it’s just a friendly rivalry.
Maybe you should talk about the match of the century instead to agree on football.
I.D.: Actually, I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of the historic 6:3 match between England and Hungary, up until I was walking around Budapest and there was a massive mural on a firewall about it. And then, a bit later, I was drinking, unwittingly, a bottle of beer by one of the local breweries at a local bar and it was called Hatharom, 6:3. My friends found that quite funny.
Back to the ‘Tidy Up Project’ and the response you got for it: do you expect any acknowledgement for it?
We don’t expect any acknowledgement because the tidy up is our choice, our reward is to see a clean riverbank and because of the media response we have also been able to get a broader message about the environment out too.
People have helped us, a friend and group member designed a logo for us, and another developed an app for us without us knowing, he just sent it to us. We are very grateful for that and people’s help.
In another interview, you said that your motto is: “Imagination creates reality.” Can you imagine that a plastic-free Tisza – or let’s dream bigger, plastic-free waters, can be a reality?
I.D.: I think we are making quite big steps in clearing the waste that comes down the river, but I think there’s always going to be some waste in the river. Not just in this river, but every river and they obviously lead to the ocean, so there as well. It’s a massive problem and we can only hope it gets better. And we are desperately trying to do our best in this small area. But if we all take a small action, it could become something bigger.
Photos by Borcsi Borbála Kerti and Ian Davies