A 25-year-old man spitting sunflower seed shells on the sidewalk in Arad, western Romania was fined by the local police to RON 1,500 (EUR 317) and ordered to clean up the litter on the spot. To put things in perspective: the fine is almost half of the Romanian average net wage. So what is with this draconian penalty?
Sunflower seeds – either just dried or roasted and salted – have for centuries been a popular street food and a precursor of the now also ubiquitous chewing gum. In addition to giving idle hands and mouths something to do, they are also a cheap and readily available nutrient. One 100-gram serving of sunflower seeds provides about one quarter of the daily calorie intake for women and one fifth for men.
They are particularly popular in the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Asia, usually sold in small paper bags. Their consumption is so widespread in Romania, that the country – which is otherwise the 60th by population – is the world’s fifth largest sunflower seed producer with 2.2 million tonnes a year, just behind Bulgaria with 2.3 million.
But those who eat them will normally just spit the shells out wherever they happen to be: on the street, waiting in a car at a red light, on public transportation, at sporting events, in cinemas and even on the beaches. Considering how most of these places now have a smoking ban, sunflower seed shells have advanced to the top position in annoying litter, taking over cigarette butts by a wide margin.
Not only are the shells annoying, but they are also an eyesore that Romania – eager to shed its still persisting Balkans image – is particularly determined to fight. In the past few years, two Romanian cities (Giurgiu and Buzău) brought outright bans on their public consumption, while elsewhere in the country the spitting of the shells is a qualified case of littering and punished more severely.
You might think that the habit is largely confined to the lower classes, but you would be wrong. At least one leading regional politician has been photographed recently doing the same at a sports event.
Title image: The young man from Arad cleaning up his mess (Photo: Arad local police)