This April, Emergence presenting partner Trash Free Trails is inviting everybody - walkers, riders, swimmers, bit-of-everythingers - to take part in the One Bag Challenge. The aim is to tidy up the outdoors, but also to build a stronger, more resilient outdoor community. Find out how you can help do both.
‘Litter’. It’s a small problem and a brain-burstingly big problem. Removing that sandwich packet from the middle of the trail can seem simultaneously important and futile.
But what if the point wasn’t just removing ‘other people's rubbish’? What if it meant something more? What if, through a process of reconnection, cleaning our environments could instil a sense of belonging, ownership and community among outdoor lovers, new and old?
This is the thinking behind Trash Free Trails. Through community trail cleans, campaign work, educational programmes, citizen science and scientific research, Trash Free Trails is on a mission to reduce litter on UK trails, and the wild places they take us, by 75% by 2025. When you consider that up to 23 times more plastic pollutes land ecosystems than it does oceans (despite what the press coverage might imply) the ambition of this goal, and the scale of the problem, become apparent.
Litter is much more than an eyesore. It makes communities feel worse about where they live, is associated with increased crime and reduces the social and economic value of places. It costs councils millions in taxpayers’ money every year to clear up. And it kills animals and pollutes ecosystems. The RSPCA alone receives 4000 calls per year about animals harmed by litter. When we consider unreported and not-witnessed incidents, the real number of incidents is clearly many times higher.
Nevertheless, the 75% reduction is really only one of Trash Free Trails’ goals. Its approach to the problem offers an array of other benefits to anybody who cares to get involved, from seasoned adventurers to people new to the outdoors. ‘Removing litter’ is in fact a limited way to think about the campaign.
For one, trail cleans foster environmental stewardship. We can’t be expected to fight for things we don’t care about, and the ritual of tending to a local patch, even occasionally, helps build this care. A trail clean sings “I care about this place!” loudly and in chorus.
In return, nature is a powerful medicine. The array of evidence proving the physical and mental health benefits of getting outside is astounding. As Nature As A Human Right founder Ellen Miles argues elsewhere in this Edition, it’s the closest thing to a panacea we have
Community heals too. Adventure is often framed as an individual pursuit, and the personal benefits can certainly be transformative. But to really help society, adventure must be driven by community. Trash Free Trails recognises this, and puts community and care at the heart of its work. What’s more, stories abound of different segments of the outdoor community coming together through trail cleans to smooth out tensions.
Working collectively also helps us understand problems, rather than just fight fires. Citizen science is a core, although by no means essential, aspect of Trash Free Trails’ work. In collaboration with Bangor University, the team is drawing on data from hundreds of data-collecting citizen scientists to understand the drivers and dynamics of the UK’s litter problem. You could be one of them!
“Trash Free Trails will NEVER be just one thing,” says ambassador and teacher Jo Shwe. “To me it’s an opportunity to care for the places I love and work with likeminded individuals and groups.” For Jo’s students, she says, “it’s the vehicle that drives them to become more than they ever believed they could, and to have a purpose and a reason to do and be better.” And for the outdoor community? “It is an opportunity to come together to make new friends and connections, to share compassion and ideas and to join forces to keep our wild spaces free from single-use pollution.”
Whatever you see in Trash Free Trails’ mission, it includes you, as a member of the outdoor community. Without addressing the reasons ‘litter’ ends up where it does, and why it stays there for so long, all we’ll ever do is remove it. While many people are quite happy to do this, Trash Free Trails wants to remove the need for removal. And this means (re)connecting people with nature through Purposeful Adventures.
So, are you ready to step up to the One Bag Challenge? Not just to clean your local environment, but to strengthen your local community?
You’ll be pleased to know that there are no rules to the One Bag Challenge. Ok fine, a bag helps. And you will need to pick up some litter. Reporting your bag so the team can add it to the Bagometer is even better. But you really can do what works for you, and use the Do It Ourselves toolkit for guidance.
You can clean a country footpath, a city street or something that isn’t a trail at all, like a park. You can go solo, with friends or with a new community through one of Trash Free Trails’ community events. You can even organise a community event yourself!
Picking up litter is always worthwhile. Every piece of litter, the Trash Free Trails folks like to say, would still be there if somebody hadn’t removed it. But it’s even more worthwhile when you consider that it’s about so much more than litter. Come for the litter, stay for the community.