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How to turn Children into Pirates

Nature Journal


Knut Wimberger

Short summary:

A clash of cultures is underway in new immigration destinations like Austria. It will exacerbate with migration caused by population growth and climate crisis for the years to come. The waste we see in nature is a physical manifestation of this brewing tension. Environmental education is a substantial contribution to the integration of immigrants and creates a new concept of home, which is not based on a common culture but a common nature.


Nature Journal - Feb. 21, 2021 

Since November we have been walking through this neighbourhood, our new home since September, as plastic pirates once a month We use tweezers, gloves and garbage bags to collect the rubbish that is carelessly thrown into nature by fellow citizens. Today, we were on the road around the old Glanzstoff factory for the fourth time. We captured 19 kilograms in our just under two hour-raid. Time to take a step back and contemplate.

I had imagined Austria differently. At least I remembered it differently. Clean. Neat. Close to nature. I was abroad for 20 years. Now I'm back in this country with my children and I'm disappointed and worried at the same time. Disappointed about the state of nature in St. Pölten and the surrounding area. Concerned about the apathy with which this condition is met and about the smoldering anger I notice in conversations with native residents.

Austria has, in relative terms, turned into one of the top 5 global immigration nations after Australia and Sweden, yet before Germany or the United States. In cities like STP one third of residents have a migration background. A clash of cultures is underway, which will exacerbate with migration caused by population growth and climate crisis for the years to come. The waste we see in nature is a physical manifestation of this brewing tension.

I have been collecting rubbish for 10 years. It all started with a vacation in the Philippines on the island of Boracay, where I had to surf my kiteboard on a beach polluted by tourist sewage. No fun. At first I felt just disappointment, but then quickly decided that I had to contribute something myself to solve this problem. I made it my habit to collect rubbish for one day of my vacation and thus give something back to my host country. Still, a few years later, the island was completely closed to tourism due to an ecological mega disaster.

For the past three years I've been hunting rubbish once a month, no matter where I am based, and I think a lot about the future of work and education. My wife is still irritated, but the children like to be there when we run new routes. In St. Pölten, too, we wanted to work out a new route on Sunday, because I had believed that three cleanups around the gloss factory would be sufficient. In addition, shortly after our January mission, the municipal waste service had conscientiously disposed of the rubbish along Herzogenburgerstrasse.

Unfortunately my expectation was wrong. In fog and light rain, we did our usual route and when we reached Traisenpark Süd, a local shopping center, our cart was fully loaded with rubbish. It is worrying that approximately 80% of our prey consists of new contamination, meaning it was dumped into nature between our last mission a month ago and this Sunday.

Dealing with rubbish is perhaps not a pleasant, but certainly an incredibly formative and satisfying process, on several levels. Physically, on a Plastic Pirates tour, I bent down at least 200 times and hence completed a workout in fresh air. Emotionally speaking, it feels good to free a piece of our planet from surface pollution - after such activity dinner tastes better and I sink into my sofa satisfied, grateful for a day filled with purpose.

You also think about all kinds of things. What kind of rubbish is out there? Who exactly throws it away so carelessly? What's going on in their minds? What does the beaver that we finally got to see make of living among heaps of plastic? How can one counteract this human apathy and negative impact? What does it take to create more respect for our shared public space in a society?

We fail to completely remove residual waste from the small patches of river forest next to the mill creek because nature fills with new rubbish in the four weeks between our activities. This new waste is made up of around 60% residual waste, 30% aluminum cans and 10% glass. It is noticeable that the majority of aluminum cans are energy drinks: can these consumers really be blamed when they were “too excited” to notice the rubbish bins installed every 500 meters or so….?. A smaller part consists of beer cans. These consumers, in turn, usually no longer make it to the trash bins once “heavily sedated”. Most likely they cannot remember and so how would they even understand their own motivation?

Then there is a substantial number of cigarette packs. I didn't realize that so many people still smoke. With the cigarette butts around the benches, you could definitely fill a further two big bin liners. This should be done at some point, because nota bene: one cigarette butt contaminates 40 liters of good drinking water! About a third of the residual waste comes from McDonalds. With the slogan “Touching allowed. Your handful of normality.”, this company’s current advertising seems far beyond the boundaries of freedom of expression. Throwing away properly is also allowed and is – or at least should - part of normality.

After years in the automation industry, I am at least aware that our industrial companies produce packaging with robots and automated assembly lines extremely efficiently. However, garbage that we throw into nature in a disorderly manner will still have to be collected by human hands in the coming years. There are no suitable machines for this yet. So, if we don't want to run the risk of suffocating in our own rubbish, as shown in the Pixar film Wall-E, then we need to take appropriate measures now.


These measures can easily be traced back to the topic of motivation. Why do we behave as we would expect others to do? Why do we even behave in a certain way? Is it our own ideals and standards or is it the standards of others and society that lead us to do things or not to do them?

Modern people are self-sufficient and are no longer interested in what others think of them as long as they have followers on facebook or instagram. Modern society withdraws more and more from the important questions. We live plurality in every respect. Sexual behavior. Consumer behavior. Disposable Habits. Just do it.

The result is a disoriented youth, paralyzed teachers, apathetic parents and cultural weakness. What does it actually mean to be from here? To be entitled to dispose one's garbage in nature or to take responsibility for this place and to free the nature around us from garbage? How long does a form of coexistence work that does not establish basic behavioural norms and creates positive incentives to obey to them?

In 1997, the renowned sinologist Oskar Weggel wrote about a future with 12 billion people, cramped spaces and scarce raw materials: in such an environment the glorification of the individual must, as it has become established in modern philosophy and in the western industrialized countries, appear as a “luxury creation” that is neither appropriate to human history as a whole nor to the prospects of a “post-European” age.

Classical Confucianism was a child of need - and as such gave answers to the question of how distribution struggles can be resolved bloodlessly and how forms of close proximity can be designed as conflict-free as possible. In a sign of diminishing options and increasing constriction, it could once again prove to be a refuge and advisor! Globalization would then unfold the other way around, namely from east to west!"

A comparison with the city-state of Singapore, in which about as many people live as in Austria, comes to mind. Since 1968, citizens have been educated there to keep their land clean, not only with gentle instructions, but with hefty fines of at least 300 Singapore dollars or about EUR 200. Over 56,000 people are registered as voluntary garbage collectors and support the government in its efforts to make Singapore a model country. Retirees in particular like to meet in groups and roam the area like the raping Huns?

In Singapore, both forms of motivation have worked together to improve the environmental situation. On the one hand, high fines are an extrinsic motivation to dispose of nothing wildly, on the other hand, the groups that like to meet regularly to collect rubbish are an opportunity to socialize and join meaningful activities instead of being at home lonely with Netflix, McDonalds take out & Co.

It is obvious that something must be done. An employee of the municipal garden management recently told us that he and a colleague are exclusively occupied with collecting rubbish. They screen the local lakes every 5-10 days in winter and daily in summer. The loading area of their vehicle is always full. The garbage has doubled since Corona as people are outside much more. How would the throw-away behaviour change if surveillance cameras were set up along the mill creek or at the parking lots of Viehofner Lake and littering were to be punished with a fine?


In the 80s when I grew up in the polluted industrial city of Linz and I attended primary school, waste separation had just become part of compulsory education. Up until then, rubbish was found in every forest and a single small metal garbage container was installed in front of every house in our settlement. Step by step waste separation was introduced and we children were practically vaccinated with a waste separation mindset: paper, glass, metal, plastic go into different bins.

Austria has transformed into a country of immigration over the past 30 years. 1.8 of 8.5 million inhabitants had a migration background in 2015. Austria has thus become one of the world's leading immigration destinations and – not counting small states such as Singapore, Cyprus or the United Arab Emirates - it is in first place in Europe and in a leading position worldwide.

However, there are two major differences to well-known immigration countries such as the USA, New Zealand, Canada or Australia: 1. Until the 1960s, despite its history as a multi-ethnic monarchy, Austria had no immigrants from culturally foreign countries and is therefore a largely homogeneous society culturally. 2. In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon nations, immigrants to Austria have always come from low-income and relatively uneducated backgrounds.

With this special framework, the Austrian situation preempts what, according to serious ecologists, will soon be the “new normal” for the entire world: in the coming decade, climate change will lead to a mass migration that will fundamentally change the concept of what we call home . Home must increasingly be defined by a responsibility for an ecosystem – and not by cultural or religious denominations that allow people in the same ecosystem to act against each other rather than with each other.

Environmental education can make an important contribution to this transformation of fatherland and mother country. The creation of an awareness of the immediate living spaces in early childhood leaves a respect for nature and behavioral traces that are difficult to override. Those imprints in the children from the 80s must now be applied to our new fellow citizens with the same urgency in order to integrate them sustainably into our society and to preserve our homeland for the next generation.

With Plastic Pirates, a format that we developed in Shanghai three years ago, we are trying the path of intrinsic motivation and invite children and families to take on “stewardship” for a small part of our planet in a playful way. Our participants can put on face color at the beginning of the event to look a bit like real pirates and can bring an eye patch if they need an additional challenge to operate the waste tweezers like sabers.

Green Steps combines best practices from alternative pedagogy and the latest learning psychology to improve the learning outcome and experience of the participants. Children form small pirate crews and fill garbage bags that are weighed on electronic scales. In a group discussion, children learn about the different types of rubbish in general and plastics in particular.

We use storytelling and object manipulation as a method to strengthen long-term memory and establish healthy habits. The contents of all garbage bags are sorted together and each child takes an object and tells a story about how it ended up in nature in a reflection round. Events like Plastic Pirates are organized in neighbourhoods with a high percentage of residents of migrant background. Children learn to respect the environment in a playful way and to have fun as a group.

Take a look on our event platform and become a pirate!