Some people thank me, others join me — and I’ve also had people make fun of me. What elicited all these disparate reactions? Simply picking up trash on the beach. When it comes to plastic especially, which I know persists in the environment for hundreds of years, it seems like a no-brainer to at least pick up some of it when I’m out enjoying the natural world. I can usually find a bin or recycling container within minutes of leaving the beach or trail, and worst-case scenario, I end up taking it home and popping it in my own recycling bin.
I’m not the only one. I know some of you reading this certainly would join me or already do this on your own.
When writer Andrew Mayer of The Guardian took his baby daughter to the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales for her first beach holiday, he taught her something he'd been doing all his life: picking up litter. Mayer wrote:
"...when at the the end of the day we had to navigate between piles of detritus left by other holidaymakers, I had an epiphany: tut-tutting achieves nothing. Indeed, seeing a problem that you can fix and shrinking from doing so ranks you with the evildoers.
So I said to my daughter: these wild places give so much to us, let’s give something back – only in this case, giving means taking something away. Ten minutes later we had a boot full of rubbish, and half an hour later we had got rid of it all at a recycling centre. Not much effort to make a contribution to the most important battle on the planet: to save it."
It's a simple thing to do, but not a common one. However, just imagine the consequences if everyone who visited a beach or natural area took out whatever trash they spotted. Or, in places where there's sadly too much litter to count, a set number — like 50 pieces. Besides not littering in the first place, obviously, it's one direct, impactful thing people of all ages can do when we find trash.
Lest you feel like it's too weird, there's an app or hashtag to help. There are hundreds of thousands of pieces of garbage tagged #litterati, which was one of the earliest Instagram tags to encourage people to pick up litter.
It started (really) small, wrote #litterati instigator Jeff Kirschner in 2013: "At first, it was just me. I'd photograph and pick up ten things a day. Litter became approachable. Picking it up became surprisingly enjoyable, even artistic. More importantly, I was documenting my personal impact on cleaning the earth. Pretty soon, others began contributing to the Digital Landfill — a photo gallery of all the litter that had been picked up and properly discarded. It wasn’t long before several thousand pieces had been collected and a community was born."
Kirschner turned trash pickup into a movement: Four years later there's an app to go with the hashtag and it's part of a crowdsourced movement to "identify, map and collect the world's litter." Why keep track? "Geotags provide insight into problem areas, while keywords identify the most commonly found brands and products. This data will be used to work with companies and organizations to find more sustainable solutions," according to the site.
Now that Litterati has collected and logged over 700,000 pieces of trash, we can see some of the trends. The most common litter is plastic (followed by cigarette butts). The most common companies' trash logged is Marlboro, McDonald's, Coke, RedBull and Starbucks. It begs the question: Shouldn't these companies do something about the garbage they have created? Or perhaps there's a way they can create packaging that's less persistent in the environment?
Joining Litterati, there's the Australian campaign Take 3 For The Sea, which has almost 68,000 followers on Instagram around the suggestion to: "Take 3 pieces of rubbish with you when you leave the beach, waterway or ... anywhere and you've made a difference." That is super simple.
Whether you want to post the trash you pick up on Instagram or not, just try it out. Forget about feeling weird, and do it. It's a bit addicting, and after you get used to it, you might find yourself having difficulty just walking past litter. Just two weekends ago, I ended up hauling a giant plastic-taped cardboard box off a beach and wrestling it into a size and shape that could be left with the trash. It was a comic scene that left my partner laughing at me. But when I walked away from what I had picked up on the San Francisco beach, I knew that I'd done a good thing that day. It's that sense of doing something useful that keeps me picking up garbage left behind by others.