"Mothers and rubbish. What connects the two?" I asked myself that while walking through the small Romanian town of Tulcea. I had just noticed that every garbage can I passed was decorated with the word 'Mama' and a big red heart.
Tormented by this question, I started to ask around but found that most locals were just as confused as me. Some simply dismissed it with a "Someone at Town Hall must be off their rocker," while others debated whether the word was in fact 'llama' because some of the paint had peeled off the can. Then, and old lady informed me that it's "because your mama keeps the house clean. The point of the little heart is to show you love cleanliness, just like you love your mother."
Gabriel Pascale, a 38-year-old local, said the message is aimed at uncouth citizens, who don't throw their garbage in the bins: "They're trying to say that you can't throw garbage anywhere like you do in your momma's house (sic) and that nature has a heart, I think. That you shouldn't treat nature's heart like garbage. It's the kind of emo thinking you find in young blokes these days. They should all be sent to the military just so they don't get their periods."
Fortunately, a few minutes later, I bumped into 24-year-old Alexandra Antohi, who actually knew what it's all about, because she's a member of a local political party. "The mayor thought that if he wrote 'Mama' on the trash cans, he'd somehow make people stop kicking them – that it would appeal to their emotional sides," Alexandra explained.
This sounded pretty plausible so I investigated the issue further with the local authorities – specifically with Cezar Jipa, who is the Head of Public Sanitation for the City of Tulcea. He told me some of the locals had made a habit of destroying trash cans: "These youngsters, most of them in their early twenties or thirties, leave bars and nightclubs at about four or five in the morning. On their way home, they start kicking garbage cans," explained Jipa.
Cezar Jipa is actually the one who came up with the idea of softening the vandals' hearts by encouraging an emotional transfer between the concept of motherhood and the bins. In fact, he has thoroughly analysed the motives behind whacking public property: "The bins are set up at a height that allows the vandals to show off their physical skills – they kick them and hold contests to find out who can knock it off the pole first. They also place bets on how many kicks it would take to knock down a public garbage bin, which is set up at a height of 80cm. It's not just a local sport in Tulcea, I think it's a national pastime," Jipa explained.
This wasn't Cezar Jipa's first attempt at thinking outside the box. A few months ago he hung a bunch of banners that simply wrote "Respect cleanliness as much as you respect yourself" around the town – but that did not work.
"In Tulcea, about 25 to 30 public bins are destroyed every month. Vandalism peaks on Friday nights, when the youth are out partying. That's why we thought of writing 'Mama' on them – hoping it makes them feel bad about destroying the bins. The message is we should all be more careful in managing our violent impulses and frustrations. I wanted to emotionally discourage this kind of primitive behaviour. Now, I'm not an expert, I'm just a garbage collector – but that's how felt," Jipa says.
As expected, some people didn't appreciate his forward thinking ways. There were people who said, "Yo, you can't put our holy mothers on trash cans." The most amusing part of this story, however, is that Jipa's idea turned out to be totally on point. Since the measure was installed, bin vandalism in Tulcea has gone down by 33 percent. I guess even punks love their mothers.