Shrijesh Siwakoti, a computer science major at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, devoted part of his spring break in Asheville, North Carolina, to cleaning up trash. Siwakoti and 10 other students spent nearly seven hours along a creek and roadside, collecting 44 bags of garbage and more than 250 pounds of other waste like tires and mattresses.
Their trash collecting coincided with a #trashtag viral challenge in which people are sharing photos of themselves cleaning up litter and garbage, urging others to do the same.
"A lot of people we met during the day were grateful to us for doing our part and also the reaction on my post on Reddit has been overwhelming," Siwakoti tells MNN. "Seeing how many people have been collecting trash in their communities with trashtag has been my favorite thing on Reddit ... and all of this actually matters."
The #trashtag idea has been around for several years, with one company promoting the movement since 2015. The idea was conceived by an employee who picked up 100 pieces of trash during a road trip and then spread the idea to the rest of his company.
The movement recently regained momentum when it was picked up on Reddit, Twitter and Instagram. Facebook user Byron Roman helped fuel the latest burst of interest when he shared a post from another page. It features one photo of a young man sitting in a pile of litter outdoors. In the second photo, the same guy is in the same place, but it's cleaned up and he's surrounded by piles of brimming garbage bags.
"Here is a new #challenge for all you bored teens," Roman wrote in his post. "Take a photo of an area that needs some cleaning or maintenance, then take a photo after you have done something about it, and post it."
Roman was surprised by the response.
"I was just sharing the post on my page to maybe inspire my Facebook friends," he tells MNN.
The post has been shared more than 323,000 times, and it looks like more than "bored teens" have been inspired to start cleaning up.
Making an impact
People are sharing photos of themselves cleaning up trash from beaches, neighborhoods, parks, sidewalks, parking lots, roadways and riverbanks from all over the world. There are couples, community groups, families, friends and, yes, teenagers, showing off their efforts, hoping to inspire others to grab some garbage bags and do the same thing.
Sean Huntington from Mesa, Arizona, shared a post of a February cleanup of South Mountain Park in Phoenix that happened to coincide with the trashtag movement. Huntington owns a company called Keep Nature Wild that leads regular trash cleanups throughout Arizona. The group has a movement called Wild Keepers, where people worldwide can track trash on a map.
"On this day we picked up 7,946 pounds of trash with the help of over 500 people," Huntington tells MNN about the photo he posted on Reddit. "Always surprised at how much trash there is; it's sad to see, but rewarding that people come out and support making a positive impact in their local wild places."
The group has plans for many more cleanup days.
"So seeing all these trash pickup posts is awesome right? People are amazing," Reddit user brad4498 commented on Huntington's post. "But then at the same time, look at all this trash people are having to pick up."
A bag of butts
Emin Israfil posted a photo on Reddit of himself hoisting a clear trash bag filled with 8,000 cigarette butts. He said he and his friends had collected them over a two-month period on four blocks of Polk Street in San Francisco. And yes, he said, to the curious who asked: They did count them all.
Israfil is a co-founder of Rubbish, an app that uses technology to track litter to try to develop better solutions for solving litter problems. Israfil and his friends pick up regularly on the same four blocks. They also partner with neighborhood organizations to clean up in other areas and they do beach and park cleanups, as well. They also work with a Philadelphia organization to help them track how much they've cleaned.
The movement started with Israfil and two friends, Elena Guberman and Felipe Melivilu, "but it's grown as people see us picking up on the street regularly," he tells MNN.
"It all started when Elena’s corgi, Larsen, choked on a chicken bone while we were taking him for a walk," Israfil says. "After that, we became obsessed with cleaning up litter."
The group goes out three times a week. They pick up everything they can carry. If something is too big, they call the city to come pick it up.
"We became obsessed with creating litter-free streets, and have over the last year been documenting, mapping and looking at litter trends. In doing so, we learned that the majority of the litter is cigarette butts," he says. They analyzed the maps and put cigarette disposal collections at the hot spots they've been able to identify and then they collect the butts and take them for recycling.
"We posted the photo because it's hard to believe you can collect that many cigarettes on just 4 blocks in about 2 months," Israfil says. "The #trashtag inspired us to post that photo!"
How to make an impact
People who have used the trashtag hashtag are quick to point out that it doesn't take hours or an army of volunteers to make an impact.
In about 30 minutes, three staff members at the Patapsco Heritage Greenway in Ellicott City, Maryland, collected about 40 pounds of trash. They posted the images on Facebook, hoping to spur others to go out and do the same.
"For people that say they don't have time, next time you are walking outside, in your neighborhood or park, just keep an eye out and pick up what you can," Huntington suggests. "You don't have to post about it, just doing a little bit goes a long way!"
"And for people who do not have the time to do something great, you don't have to be a hero and every individual effort counts," he says. "If you don't have time to do it locally either, just be more mindful and stop littering and learn to manage trash better! Also be more informed and reduce your consumption overall! Try avoiding single-use plastics as much as possible, only buy clothes and other items as much as you need and reduce consumerism, all of these goes a long way in how we change the attitude of our [communities] and held our businesses more responsible towards the environment."
And Israfil chimes in.
"It's something you can do on your way to work or on your way to the grocery store. It's good exercise and you're doing something good for yourself and the planet. I'd encourage them to take a bag and spend 5 minutes picking up litter. You'd be surprised at the amount of items you pick up! I was!"