When the sun finally rose in the U.S., it was already getting dark in Russia. Yet for 500 people across the two countries, neither time difference nor distance could diminish their commitment to a shared goal: protecting our planet.

On October 10, 2020, with support from Eurasia Foundation’s Social Expertise Exchange (SEE), the World Aral Region Charity of Glenmont, New York, and Clean Games, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, hosted the first Clean Games Intercontinental Cup. The Cup consisted of multiple competitive eco-quest events, like waste collection and sorting, spread across 21 cities in the U.S. and Russia. Participants used a specially-developed mobile app for navigation and gained points for collecting different types of litter. What helped unite participants even more was a live bilingual broadcast that connected participating cities and provided glimpses into what was happening in each location. Together, participants on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean collected and sorted a staggering 26,000 pounds of trash in just one hour.

For Clean Games, this innovative concept is not new; the organization has engaged participants in 20 countries in similar events since 2014. However, 2020 marked the first U.S.-Russia competition.

“When we came across an opportunity to organize a tournament allowing players to collect waste simultaneously but on different continents, we thought that this was a great idea—uniting people during this challenging time of isolation,” said the Clean Games chairman.

For the World Aral Region Charity, however, this partnership was an entirely new experience. The World Aral Region Charity is a non-profit organization that unites youth volunteers in Eurasia and the U.S. to solve ecological, social, and economic problems. The organization is now working on expanding its methodology to engage volunteers across the globe.

“I met the Clean Games team at a volunteer forum in Moscow, and we talked for about two years before finally getting a chance to bring our idea to life!” shared the president of the World Aral Region Charity.

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated adjustments to the event. Participants had to wear masks and limit the number of players. Despite challenges, an atmosphere of cooperation and friendship reigned. “This was absolutely crazy! We were traveling from one hemisphere to another and leading the live broadcast in two languages—fantastic,” said the host of the Cup’s live feed.

For most U.S. volunteers, the Cup was their first opportunity to organize an eco-event. Many appreciated the comradery of an organized clean-up, like Roberto from Miami, Florida, who commented: “I clean up this beach every day, but it is still terribly polluted by microplastic. Now more people will join me.” Indeed, by taking personal responsibility for cleaning the planet, participants inspired onlookers to act too. At Franz Sigel Park in New York City, the games drew the attention of visitors, some of whom joined the competition on the spot and collected waste with other teams.

For many Russian participants, the Clean Games have become a beloved seasonal tradition. In Vyborg, a city in the Leningrad region, residents have been participating in Clean Games events for the last four years. “We even had to limit the registrations. Too many people wanted to take part in international competitions!” said local coordinator, Marina.

With the Clean Games Intercontinental Cup, organizers hope to encourage ongoing cooperation and a lasting sense of community among participants, united in stewardship of our shared Earth long after the games are over.