|Results of island plogging|
Plogging, or picking up litter while jogging, is a new fad created by the Swedes. One might think the Swedes are a tidy enough lot that litter wouldn’t be a concern, but after watching videos of bags of trash collected by enthusiastic Swedish joggers, I guess the craze has utilitarian benefits even there.
I started plogging a few months back on my morning runs in San Francisco. I’d been sweeping the sidewalk and picking up all litter in front of my house (and three of my neighbors’ houses) for some time. Devoting one morning run a week to plogging meant I extended my caretaking to five kilometers. And boy have I collected trash. It was so bad at first that I ignored the gutters and just focused on the sidewalk. Even then I filled up five bags each run, emptying them at public trashcans as I went along.
As time has gone on, I’ve noticed that due to prevailing winds, trash tends to collect on the western side of north-south streets. I’ve also noticed that some people keep their sidewalks tidy and others are slobs. There is one particular apartment building that is invariably the worst spot on my entire route. I’ve noticed that if the winds are bad after recycling bins are set out, wind whips the tops of the bins open and all sorts of recycling blows far and wide. (Bad design!) Though eliminating plastic straws might be a good idea, I have to say I haven’t encountered all that many while plogging. What I do pick up is an endless number of candy wrappers, convenience/junk food wrappers and cigarette butts. In the weeks preceding California’s primary election I also picked up an absolutely ridiculous amount of campaign material, inclining me to despise the glossy faces smiling up at me from the sidewalk. I’ve also noticed that since our trash collection fees in San Francisco rose significantly, the public trash cans are now often very, very full.
|When candy is not dandy|
I encourage you to join me in plogging or plalking. First off, plogging and plalking is good for you! I’ve written many times before about the benefits of walking and walkable neighborhoods. We all need thirty minutes of exercise a day for just basic health, so plogging (or plalking) is a great way to get outdoors and accomplish two positive things at once. Plogging burns more calories per hour than straight running and can offer as good cardio if your route is not so crazy bad as to slow you to a crawl. (If it does slow you to a crawl the first time you do it, I promise it will get better.) Squatting and leaning over when plogging nicely trims your waist, and the stopping and starting can be a form of interval training. Secondly, plogging is good for the environment. Thirdly, plogging is good for humanity on a physical, social and even spiritual level. Let’s examine why.
When I plog, I pick up everything except needles and dog poop, even the tiny bits of plastic that are on their way to becoming microplastic. I also even pick up paper that, in theory, is biodegradable. The problem is that a lot of “paper” is coated with plastic that won’t break down. Beyond that, studies have shown that litter begets litter. When people see litter, consciously or unconsciously, they absorb the message that no one cares, that this place doesn’t matter. That throwing a wrapper, can or bottle on the ground is no big deal. Paper litter sends this signal just as much as plastic or metal litter. If you want to reduce litter on your route long term, all of it has to go short term.
This brings up another prime benefit of plogging. You are showing that you disapprove of litter. Again, because we humans are such imitative, peer-driven creatures, studies have shown that this disapproval actually creates social norms that make people feel constrained not to litter. You don’t have to howl and shake a fist at the sky. The fact that you are spending time picking it up speaks loudly enough.
|From the road|
Smoking cigarettes takes an average of ten years off your life. Plus it will likely make the five years leading to your death unpleasant. But there are reasons not to smoke besides an early death: it’s an expensive habit, you are profiting nasty corporations, it ages your skin terribly, it makes your clothes smell bad, etc. I bet every smoker has heard all these a million times. Still they smoke. It’s addictive. It meets a need.
|Cup-holder ashtrays (self-extinguishing!)|
Two-thirds of all cigarette butts end up as litter, making them the most littered item in the world. Trillions find their way to the ground every year. If there is litter already on the ground, smokers toss and flick their butts at an even higher rate. A significant proportion of littered butts find their way to the ocean where they are ingested by unsuspecting animals, or they join the mass of plastic that lurks like a giant Portuguese man-of-war of retribution that will swallow us someday.
|Portable butt collection|
|Litter has impact. (Center for Active Design)|
Not right relation. Let’s explore it.
|Ditch before plogging|
Either we change human consciousness so that no one litters because they understand the impact, or we change behavioral norms so that no one litters because it is socially unacceptable. I posit if someone is unconcerned or unconscious about their micro-waste, it’s nearly impossible to get them to become conscious and concerned about their country’s macro waste. I also posit if we can change the behavior of micro actions, larger consciousness has a chance to follow.
|Ditch after plogging|
The thing is, these small crimes make it impossible to live in right relation to nature and to society. All but the very youngest of us know we do a wrong when we litter. We may tell ourselves it’s no big deal, but consciously or subconsciously we carry guilt for the mini-transgression. This is why people litter much more frequently when they think no one is looking. It is also why in interviews with observed litterers, 35% denied having littered in the past month even though the interviewers had just seen them do so.
But it’s just litter I hear you say! No one is dropping atomic bombs. Stay with me here. Because littering disrupts our right relations with nature, it closes our heart to it and causes us to lose our ability to be rejuvenated by nature. We can’t hear its whispers, we can’t feel its inspiration, we can’t absorb its solace. Maybe you think this is craziness, but if you have a right relation with nature, you know what I mean, and you know what a terrible thing it is to miss out on this. Once you have a right relation with nature, you can no longer endorse its destruction. This is huge. Yes, something as insignificant as littering gets in the way of this.
|Bag of not-right relations|
Think of all this little guilt building up like plaque in the arteries of our soul. Slowly, invisibly, inexorably, it clogs things up until you’re not in right relation with anybody or anything. Believe it or not, most people fundamentally want to believe they are a good person. This desire to do good, to be good, is what makes redemption possible and is why we don’t need to be absolutely hopeless about the human race just yet. Does one piece of litter make you a bad person? Of course not. But I would say littering gets in the way of being a good person. Good people have integrity. They take responsibility for their actions, and they try not to harm others. Refraining from littering is a small thing, but it’s easy to do. Sure a napkin or a scrap of plastic might get away from you once in a while, but on the whole, carrying an empty bottle to a recycling bin (or, better yet, bringing your own water bottle) is just not that hard. So failing to do it is a transgression.
|Eventual circle of life|
But why should you plog in particular? Why not instead pressure your local government to do a better job keeping your parks and streets picked up? After all, the result is the same, a litter-free park or street.
Yes, the end result is the same. But how it is achieved makes a hugely different psychological impact. If a person prone to litter observes a local government maintenance crew picking up a park, that person will think, yeah, that’s what my tax money is for. To clean up after me. And so that person will continue to litter. The litter-free park will discourage littering in general (good!), but the fundamental social norm won’t change. If that same person observes you picking up litter with slight moue of distaste, the person will read from your body language that you think littering is bad. He/she might not agree with you, might think you’re some kind of environmental lunatic, but his/her littering habit has been challenged, not reinforced. That person will get the message that some other human being thinks less of them for their action. You’ve just given them a gentle nudge to life-affirming right relations that may transform their life.
By now you think I’m nuts or you’re intrigued. So let’s get down to the basics of plogging, how I do it anyway. I use a lightweight nylon bag that is both strong and washable. I pick up everything I see that is both man-made and obviously not supposed to be there. Literally every single thing, including small bits of glass and plastic. You should be able to eat off the sidewalk after I’m done. I’ve never seen a needle on my plogs, but if I did, I wouldn’t pick it up, nor do I pick up dog poop. (I have a friend who does pick up dog poop left by irresponsible dog owners in his neighborhood. He is a saint. If you are also that generous, I applaud you.) I also don’t pick up hubcaps (seriously, I see more than a few) or other items that are too heavy to jog with. But aluminum cans and plastic bottles find their way into my bag, as does the odd pizza box, clothes hangers, or even, once, a full box of cereal. In San Francisco, I put most of the trash I collect in public garbage bins. Sometimes, if it’s garbage day and lots of recycling is on the ground, I’ll pick up the recycling and randomly put it into people’s bins. Trash near my house goes into my own compost/recycling/garbage bins.
I don’t wear gloves, but you can if you choose. I pick up things gingerly, I’m very careful with glass, and I consciously don’t touch my face until after I get home and can wash my hands. I don’t confront people who are littering, and I advise you not to either. Guilt can make people defensive and nasty. Just pick up the item and move on. They’ll get the message. When you get to a park where people are around, you can say brightly to an accompanying friend (or the world in general) “What a nasty mess!” before you cheerfully go about picking it all up.
The first time you plog a route, it may take you a while, but don’t despair. It will get better and eventually you’ll get some good stretches of running in. If your route is really bad, just plog the last two blocks the first time, the last four blocks the second time, the last six blocks the third time, etc. until you get your route into shape.
Once you start plogging, beware. You will now always need to bring a plogging bag with you as you walk to the store or other errands because the litter you see will annoy you. When I’m walking with others, I don’t pick up every single thing because it would try their patience, just the stuff that bugs me the most. But once you start plogging, you’ll discover the rewarding secret. Even though clearing litter from a block or a park is not permanent, even though no one may thank you, even though it will seem as if people throw down cigarette butts and fast food wrappers just to spite you, once you’ve got it all picked up and that block or park looks great, even if just for a moment, the result is satisfying. You’ve done one small but mighty act to get human beings in right relation with the planet.