Talking trash | Monocle

thumbnail text
Members of the clean-up crew

A healthy city is not so different from a healthy resident: it grows and adapts, does its best to look after itself and takes care of its hygiene. But at an urban scale, keeping rubbish, dirt and odours under control is a significant challenge. The UN estimates that the world’s cities produce more than 10 billion tonnes of waste a year, with little sign of slowing down.

Look at the big picture (after giving it a good wipe) and it’s clear that solving the problem requires our governments, private companies and residents to work together. Overwhelming as the challenge might sound, monocle has sifted through the rubbish and found heaps of optimism about the future of our urban hygiene. In the following pages, we present the positive civic initiatives, smart technological innovations and upcycling companies that are keeping our cities clean.

the river dredgers

Things become frantic when a volunteer pulls an undetonated grenade out of the river. People scatter; our photographer drops his camera and calls the police. Soon, we hear that the bomb squad is getting involved. Thankfully, Rusken’s finds are rarely so explosive. As the picking crew’s 50 or so orange-clad members make their way up and down Oslo’s Akerselva river in boats or on foot along the banks, the usual suspects emerge: plastic containers, glass bottles, cigarette butts, pouches of snus tobacco, the occasional rusted road sign and the obligatory electric scooter. In about four hours, about 700kg of rubbish is hauled out of the 8km river that cuts through the capital, and which one volunteer describes to us as “the pulse of Oslo”.

Rusken dinghy

The crew’s efforts to keep the river pulsing are appreciated. A soundtrack of applause and thank-yous from passers-by accompanies its work. “This city has been very lucky,” says Jenny Krohn, an Oslo resident for the past 35 years, whose official title is “Rusken general”. “We have been bringing people together to keep Oslo clean since 1976.”

Though Rusken (from the Norwegian word “rusk”, meaning “scrap”) is funded by the Oslo municipality, it operates more or less independently with little in terms of formal resources. Krohn has only two full-time employees, plus three hired seasonally. Still, the small platoon seems to have little trouble mobilising the occasional clean-up army. “The trick is to make yourself look bigger than you are,” says Krohn.

Wild search
The day’s catch
Taking pride

The secret to Rusken’s success is the fact that it taps into Norway’s dugnad tradition: literally meaning “help” or “support”, it refers to a custom of community-driven volunteering with strong connotations of civic duty. Doing your fair share of dugnad to contribute to the health of your community is a central part of Norwegian life. And it’s what allows Rusken’s team of three to do the work of a far bigger organisation. 

The power of dugnad is on full display here. Alongside the volunteering ground troops with their bags and rubbish-pickers, Oslo’s Fjord Cleanup has brought dozens of small boats, which are deftly navigated down the river and used to haul bigger catches. Rusken is also collaborating with Kirkens Bymisjon (Church City Mission) to offer paid work for residents who are struggling with issues such as substance abuse and unemployment. 

Later we learn that the police has checked the explosive and identified it as a relatively harmless grenade that releases white smoke. With calm restored, the cleaners continue undeterred. One officer tells us that he’ll return in the evening to fish here (though not for explosives). Thanks in part to Rusken’s work keeping the river clean, the once polluted Akerselva is now thriving with healthy salmon and trout.

By 14.00 the troops have dispersed. And there’s a feeling in the air that Oslo’s pulse is beating that bit stronger.

Gomi Hiroi Samurai

You might think that Tokyo’s residents do a good job of keeping their city clean but actor Ikki Goto felt that they needed a reminder to take their litter home. So he teamed up with Keisuke Nakagome to become the Gomi Hiroi (“litter-picking”) Samurai, a double act that takes the message to the streets. Dressed in neo-traditional robes, with trilbies on their heads and baskets on their backs, the duo wield elongated tongs and perform a theatrical clean-up for passers-by. The show, which is sponsored by city businesses, entertains as well as informs. The pair pop up weekly around the area near their office in Ikebukuro and also recruit volunteers, and work with other organisations. In one performance, posted on social media, Goto sets out to fill 10 buckets with cigarette ends, plastic bottles and fast-food wrappers. The aim is to raise awareness along with standards. “We want to make people think twice before they drop their litter,” he says.

Public Hygiene Council

Singapore’s global reputation for cleanliness demands constant vigilance: a stray piece of rubbish could upend it all. The Public Hygiene Council, a non-government group for promoting urban sanitation, has announced that its formerly quarterly “SG Clean Day” – when residents clear litter and sweep streets – will now occur every two months. The aim is to encourage civic mindedness and public awareness of what it takes to keep Singapore tidy. Not only do bank tellers and baristas pick up brooms, but janitors receive a much-needed day off too.

Mayor Eric Adams
New York

New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, came to office on a promise: “Fighting crime, fighting inequality, fighting rats.” The first two might still be works in progress but the city is getting on top of its rodent problem. In 2023 it appointed a dedicated “rat czar”. Initiatives include a side-loading garbage truck, designed in Italy, that will soon collect from new wheelie bins and put an end to bags of rubbish sitting kerbside, while Brooklyn-based Citibin is making enclosures where bins can be stored out of reach of furry residents.

the rubbish collector
Zug, Switzerland

All city dwellers know the feeling – the ugly sight of bins overflowing, holding your breath to avoid the smell on your commute and gritting your teeth at the daily grating of trucks struggling to keep up with the ceaseless flow. But one Swiss company might have found a simple solution to make the whole affair more bearable: to take it underground.

It started in founder Paul Villiger’s barn in the canton of Zug, where the self-taught inventor began welding metal pieces together to create new methods of condensing tins for easier recycling. From there, the ideas kept flowing. About five years after founding his eponymous company in 1991, Villiger’s first underground systems were installed in France and the Netherlands. “The initial idea was to  limit noise and smells from waste collection in traditional containers,” says Michéle Villiger, who heads the international business. Today, it is a 400-strong family business with a revenue of €40m, exporting its innovative systems worldwide.


Paul Villiger

With its neat containers that have a minimal footprint and can hold anything from household waste to recyclables, Villiger can eliminate the need for foul-smelling, ugly bins at street level. The fact that these enclosed containers are below ground reduces noise and allows them to take more rubbish than standard bins. “The larger size also reduces the need for collection vehicles, which has a positive effect on noise levels, safety and the environment,” says business manager Michael Friederici. And instead of on specific bin- collection days, residents can throw out their waste at any time of the week.

Villiger’s customers are towns and property developers that benefit from compact waste-management solutions, reducing the need to allocate large spaces to rubbish collection that could otherwise be used for green spaces. The firm has further integrated itself into the waste-management value chain by developing a range of services, including special vehicles to empty containers in just a few minutes. Specific needs are different in every town but Michéle Villiger says that solutions can be adapted to anything from urban geographies to climate and social requirements. Now, from the quaint town of Oberrüti overlooking Lake Zug, Villiger and his team of engineers are already sketching out how the next generation of waste-management systems can make our cities even cleaner.


Villiger’s easy-to-use interface


Special vehicle for unloading rubbish containers


Finnish firm Trombia Technologies has taken street sweepers to the next level with the world’s first autonomous all-electric contraption, Trombia Free. The machine uses Lidar (light detection and ranging) and satellite data to map its environment and can then perform shifts day and night using only 10 per cent of the energy of a traditional street sweeper. And it’s quiet too.

Winnenden, Germany

Those of us who take pride in our patios might know Kärcher as the leading global manufacturer of power sprays since 1935. But the innovative family-run brand also puts its own cleaning techniques to good use when it comes to preserving the façades of historical monuments. Headquartered just outside Stuttgart, since 1980 Kärcher, alongside a team of art restorers, has been cleaning up more than 190 of our cities’ most recognisable monuments, from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to the Vatican City’s colonnades. Even the limestone staircase in Paris’s Tuileries Garden has had a face-lift just in time for the city to host the Olympic Games, so it’s a good thing that the Kärcher team has experience of working under pressure.

Willebroek, Belgium

Removing graffiti can be harmful to buildings that are made from softer stone and older structures too. To tackle this problem, Belgian company Laserflux has developed laser technology that heats up paint, rust and other surface grime, and evaporates it. The technique leaves the underlying material layer untouched because of its higher evaporation temperature. Unlike traditional methods such as sandblasting, the process is quiet and doesn’t cause dirt to fly everywhere, allowing cleaning works to occur without disturbing residents.

the plastic upcycler
Sungai Watch

Sungai Watch at work at a Bali riverside

In 2005, when Gary Bencheghib was nine years old, he and his family moved from Paris to Bali. The Indonesian island has been his home ever since. As Bencheghib grew up, Bali’s tourism industry boomed and he saw the pollution and environmental damage that accompanied its rapid development. He started taking part in beach clean-ups as a teenager, clearing the mounds of plastic that lined the shore after rainstorms. In 2020, Bencheghib and his siblings established Sungai Watch. What began as a small volunteer effort based on a simple innovation – installing floating barriers to stem the flow of rubbish from Bali’s rivers into the sea – has grown into a global charity with 140 full-time staff and sponsors including wwf and Marriott Indonesia. Sungai Watch runs education programmes in schools and works with village leaders and government officials to tackle Bali’s rubbish problem.

Dressed for the part
In the bag

Sungai Watch’s most impressive achievement is perhaps the transformation of the waterways that criss-cross the tropical island. They were once so clogged with rubbish that it was often impossible to see the surface of the water through the blanket of debris. Now, Bali’s canals and rivers run clear, no longer an urban eyesore or health hazard.

As Sungai Watch’s operations expanded – it now has 280 barriers up and running – its stockpile of collected plastic grew too. “Our warehouses quickly filled up,” says Bencheghib. “In Indonesia there isn’t much recycling.” About 10 per cent of plastic waste in Indonesia – the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China – is recycled. The rest lies in landfills or goes out to sea. Bali has very few recycling facilities.

This was the impetus for Sungai Design, the group’s newest venture, which upcycles waste – plastic bags in particular – and transforms it into furniture. Sungai Design’s first product, the Ombak chair, went on sale in March. US designer Michael Russek crafted the angular lounge chairs in black, blue and white, the original colours of the plastic bags that constitute them. The chairs are numbered, providing information on the locations where the bags were dredged from rivers. The texture and shade of every piece is unique. The Ombak chair costs $960 (€880). Its popularity is a testament to its beautiful design and consumers’ enthusiasm for supporting smart environmental solutions.

Plastic repurposed from discarded bags
Sorting through the rubbish
Component parts
Assembling Ombak chairs
Finished chairs

“We felt that we needed a product telling the story of where the plastic has been collected,” says Bencheghib. “Every chair comprises 28kg of plastic that would otherwise have gone into the ocean.” The chair has been selling fast in Indonesia and Sungai’s factory in Bali can barely keep up with demand. The first container of Ombaks was shipped to the US in June. Other products are in the works, including a stool. “We never knew that we’d be making furniture when we started cleaning up,” says Bencheghib. “We have been learning by doing. We’re really excited.”;


“Convenience doesn’t have to cost the world,” is the motto championed by sustainable start-up Notpla, reflecting its commitment to tackling plastic pollution with innovative seaweed-based packaging that can be composted and biodegraded like a piece of fruit. “To encourage wider adoption, we’re embedding ourselves in the food service, catering and hospitality worlds,” says Notpla’s Niall Russell. In the UK, as well as supplying takeaway delivery firm Just Eat, Notpla has partnered with the Compass Group to replace more than 75 million items of plastic across some 50 entertainment venues. “Through our UK partners we are making inroads across Europe and the US,” says Russell.

Redhouse Studio
Cleveland, USA

Architectural firm Redhouse Studio has joined forces with scientists at Nasa and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to tackle construction and demolition waste by harnessing the power of mushrooms. Its Biocycler programme involves setting fungi to work devouring and detoxifying anything from wooden floors to asphalt-based roof shingles. This process also creates new, carbon-neutral materials. “Our aim is to make large slabs from these,” says founder Chris Maurer. “They can be as strong as concrete, easy to erect, insulative and fire resistant, while mitigating landfill materials and toxins in the built environment.”

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi’s Sparklo is using a rewards system to change recycling habits. It’s a simple concept: fill cities with reverse-vending machines called Sparklomats into which users can feed bottles and cans to earn points to be redeemed as discounts in shops. “It all starts with human behaviour at the point of consumption,” says Sparklo’s ceo, Max Kaplevich. “With this approach, we are treating the root cause instead of just the symptom.” In little more than a year, the company has collected almost 30 million bottles and cans in more than 10 countries and become the Mena region’s largest clean-tech company, helped by partnerships with local governments and big names such as the Coca-Cola Company.

Share on:






Go back: Contents

Inventory & Expo: Where to go, buy and eat


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Monocle Daily