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'Instead of dwelling on sadness and fear, we can fuel hope'

Talking trash: Young Nigerian-Israeli activist sparks litter-picking movement

Sharona Shnayder grew up in Africa and the US before moving to her dad’s native Israel. Along the way she started Tuesdays for Trash, a grassroots effort now seen in 23 countries

  • Sharona Shnayder in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy/Elrom Benavraham)
    Sharona Shnayder in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy/Elrom Benavraham)
  • Volunteers at a Tuesdays for Trash cleanup event at a park in Tel Aviv, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)
    Volunteers at a Tuesdays for Trash cleanup event at a park in Tel Aviv, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)
  • Sharona Shnayder picking trash from a beach in Tel Aviv along with a fellow volunteer in this undated photo. (Courtesy)
    Sharona Shnayder picking trash from a beach in Tel Aviv along with a fellow volunteer in this undated photo. (Courtesy)
  • Volunteers at a Tuesdays for Trash cleanup event at a park in Tel Aviv, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)
    Volunteers at a Tuesdays for Trash cleanup event at a park in Tel Aviv, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)
  • Sharona Shnayder in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy/Elrom Benavraham)
    Sharona Shnayder in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy/Elrom Benavraham)
  • Volunteers at a Tuesdays for Trash cleanup event at a park in Tel Aviv, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)
    Volunteers at a Tuesdays for Trash cleanup event at a park in Tel Aviv, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)
  • The word 'stop' spelled out in litter by Tel Aviv volunteers of Tuesdays for Trash, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)
    The word 'stop' spelled out in litter by Tel Aviv volunteers of Tuesdays for Trash, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — When Sharona Shnayder picks up litter off the street, she likes to think she’s also collecting slivers of hope.

At 21, Shnayder is the co-founder and CEO of Tuesdays for Trash, a grassroots nonprofit with a presence in 23 countries that encourages people to convene on a weekly basis to clean public spaces of discarded trash. Among those countries is Israel, where she recently immigrated from Oregon.

“Picking up trash is therapeutic and makes a tangible difference,” Shnayder said. “It’s easy to focus on the doom and gloom about climate change, but, instead of dwelling on that sadness and fear, you can use it to fuel hope. I see picking up trash as a gateway for activism. It motivates you to want to do more.”

While picking up litter may not directly cool the planet, Shnayder envisions participants becoming inspired to get more involved in environmental activism, whether it’s supporting candidates who push for laws that can mitigate and reverse climate change or pressuring corporations to move toward more sustainable practices. Since the United Nations released a climate change report that described the world as being in a “code red” situation, the work feels more urgent than ever, Shnayder said.

“We’re grappling with storms, wildfires and drought. That report is not just a wakeup call, it’s an alarm. We’re in a global emergency, our house is on fire. We can’t reverse all of it, but at least can lessen the consequences,” she said, speaking to The Times of Israel via telephone.

Aside from the occasional tree planting or invasive species removal in high school, Shnayder didn’t really get involved in environmentalism until after she watched the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speak before the UN in 2018.

Volunteers at a Tuesdays for Trash cleanup event at a park in Tel Aviv, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)

“Watching kind of solidified what I wanted to do. I started looking up more and more information and I got terrified,” she said.

However, instead of stewing Shnayder stepped up.

She volunteered with the Oregon Environmental Protection Agency and lobbied members of Congress to pass climate legislation. She also began organizing programs at Portland State University where she was majoring in accounting.

Then came COVID-19 and by early May 2020 she, like much of the nation, was in lockdown.

Never one to sit still, Shnayder itched to do something — preferably outside, and preferably something that could make a difference. So she and her friend Wanda McNealy donned masks and gloves and began picking up litter. A crumpled bag of chips here. An empty soda bottle there. Bags full, they decided to do it again — and again. Before long, they’d launched Tuesdays for Trash.

Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Shnayder moved to Tualatin, Oregon, with her Israeli father when she was 8, while her Nigerian mother remained at home in Lagos.

Sharona Shnayder, front right, with volunteers at a Tuesdays for Trash cleanup event at a park in Tel Aviv, August 24, 2021. (Courtesy)

“I was excited to move. We’d watch American TV and movies. It looked like a fairy tale life. It was different, though, when we came,” she said.

For the first time, Shnayder encountered racism, xenophobia and antisemitism.

“In elementary school, I learned the N-word for the first time from one of my classmates. By the time I was in middle and high school I was straightening my hair every day and had dropped my Nigerian accent entirely just so I could fit in with all my white peers,” she said. “But not only did being a person of color make me stand out — I was also an immigrant, which was especially difficult during the Trump administration.”

Additionally, she said, rising antisemitism — from toppled Jewish tombstones, to synagogue shootings, as well as the recent wave of prejudice against Israelis and Jews resulting from the Gaza conflict in May — has weighed heavily on her.

“It’s become almost a leftist’s ideology to hate Israel, which puts someone like myself living in America and planning to move to Israel in an incredibly uncomfortable position. At times I really felt scared that people would find out I’m Jewish and ‘cancel’ me for my identity and heritage,” she said.

Sharona Shnayder picking trash from a beach in Tel Aviv in this undated photo. (Courtesy/Elrom Benavraham)

Having grown up too far from a synagogue to attend services or Hebrew school, Shnayder didn’t begin exploring her Jewish roots until she started college at Portland State University. It was then that she got involved in the school’s chapter of the Jewish Student Union.

Last year, she traveled to Israel for the first time with the Masa Israel Journey program. She worked as a marketing and campaign intern for UBQ Materials to promote recycling and waste management. Masa was one of the only organizations able to provide opportunities for young people in Israel during COVID.

While in Israel, Shnayder also launched an Israeli chapter of Tuesdays for Trash. She organized cleanups throughout Tel Aviv, including at the open-air Carmel Market, the beach and various parks. The most recent one was in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood on September 14.

Shnayder said found the country so welcoming, and the people so supportive and friendly, that she decided to immigrate. Earlier this month, she moved into her new apartment in Ramat Gan, a central Israeli city directly neighboring Tel Aviv, and enrolled in an immersive Hebrew language program.

Aside from Tuesdays for Trash, Shnayder is busy organizing the third Run for the Planet, a global clean-up fundraiser. Yerba Mate, Patagonia, Insta360 and Dirtbag Runners are among its corporate sponsors.

Sharona Shnayder picking trash from a beach in Tel Aviv along with a fellow volunteer in this undated photo. (Courtesy)

Shnayder also cited Israel’s global leadership in the tech, agriculture and environmental sectors as a factor in her decision to immigrate. She plans to pursue a career waste management, with a focus on helping address the climate crisis. She’s particularly interested in microplastics, which, at less than five millimeters long, pose a particular danger to marine life and to her favorite marine animal: the turtle.

With an eye toward a job in Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry, Shnayder said she looks forward to continuing her grassroots activism.

“Community organizing is part of the legacy I want to leave,” she said.

It’s a legacy that she credits to her early childhood in Nigeria.

“Living there taught me what I call survival sustainability skills,” she said. “I learned that resources are limited, that you have to make things that last and keep things for a long time. That it’s vital to keep our environment clean and safe.”

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