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On the trash trail

"High above Sheffield’s city skyline, I become one of the #TrashMob"

Can picking up other people’s rubbish ever be fun? We hop on a saddle to find out at a spring clean with not-for-profit crew Trash Free Trails

Words: Hannah Clugston

Photography: Alexandra Wallace

The American writer David Sedaris has become such a prominent litter picker in his West Sussex home of Horsham, that the council honoured him with a waste vehicle named Pig Pen Sedaris. The author and essayist – a self-confessed trash-collecting obsessive who walks up to 25 miles a day – is now quite the expert in litter, once appearing in front of MPs at a parliamentary select committee. An attitude he commonly encounters, he told them, is: ‘I didn’t drop it, why would I pick it up?’

It’s easy to recoil at this sentiment, but after a small amount of reflection I awkwardly conclude that I have been harbouring such an opinion myself. The last time I can recall picking up litter that wasn’t my own was while attending a community action day as a teenager. Even when one of the lockdowns began to ease and the park I had happily picnicked in appeared on national news with barely a spot of grass visible beneath the piles of rubbish, I still didn’t raise a hand to help. It didn’t even cross my mind to return to this beauty spot and assist in the clear-up. In fact, I probably thought: I didn’t drop it, why would I pick it up?

This is the problem numerous charities are hoping to fix – both with the droppers and the reluctant pickers. Keep Britain Tidy wants to tackle the estimated two million  pieces of litter discarded in the UK every day by encouraging people to become #LitterHeroes volunteers. CleanupUK, meanwhile, empowers local communities to form Litter Action groups and take care of their own patch. Surfers Against Sewage intends to end plastic pollution on beaches with its Million Mile Clean, and not-for-profit Trash Free Trails (a relative newcomer founded in 2017), aims to reduce litter on nature trails through a combination of bike riding, roaming, running and litter collecting.

Momentum certainly seems to be building and some good stats are circulating: for example, in 2021 Surfers Against Sewage cleared 320 tons of pollution from over 1.2 million miles of river, beach and countryside, and Keep Britain Tidy claimed 560,000 volunteers last year. Intrigued by this enthusiasm for rubbish removal, and keen to make up for my own apathy to date, I visited a Trash Free Trails session that was taking place in my hometown of Sheffield. This group invites people young and old to head out into nature, get on a bike with a litter claw in hand and pick up while you pedal.

Trash Free Trails project manager Richard Breeden quotes David Attenborough in his email signature: ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they haven’t experienced.’ He says this is the underlying ethos of everything Trash Free Trails does. ‘Our mission is twofold,’ he tells me. ‘To remove 75 percent of single-use pollution by 2025 and reconnect people with nature through purposeful adventure.’

High above Sheffield’s city skyline at Parkwood Springs, an almost-urban country park, I become one of the #TrashMob, soaring along the twisting trails and making up for my previous lack of litter-collecting interest in a joyous fashion. As a rookie mountain biker I approached the activity with some trepidation, worried that an overzealous swipe at a Coke can might land me upside down in shrubbery. But I discover that the majority of mess actually concentrates around stopping points, so I zip along with my fellow riders and take regular picking breaks.

The focus required to navigate the rough terrain, and the careful removal of rubbish, takes me to a flow state where I can think of little else. When we take a breather to enjoy the vast view, I’m surprised by how long we’ve been riding. Richard refers to this feeling as the ‘nature connection’. ‘It’s how much of nature you see in yourself and how connected to it you feel,’ he says. ‘It’s a feeling of oneness with nature. We feel that the pure and simple act of taking action to protect nature – whether it is picking up single-use pollution or something else – is a real catalyst for change in terms of self-esteem, confidence and overall wellbeing, and we’re trying to develop that in young people in particular.’

Trash Free Trails’ State of our Trails Report 2021 found that feelings of wellbeing directly correlated with the amount of rubbish rescued. What they’ve discovered is that litter collecting isn’t just good for the planet, it’s good for us too.

Having experienced those positive feelings, I have to agree – the nature connection is a powerful reward for any would-be litter pickers. But surely more bins and government legislation around single-use plastic would be more effective?

‘More bins and more laws might be beneficial in some areas, but we’ve been adding bins and creating laws for some time now and the problem, as we see it, isn’t getting any better,’ Richard explains. ‘We think we can distil the issue down to one word: disconnection. If we were connected to wild places and the people who we share those spaces with (and by extension, ourselves), and spend resources attempting to reach an understanding among the public, the thought of dropping pollution with no care for nature will become a thing of the past.’

I can see his point. Spending an evening under the calming arms of a natural canopy, flying along trails with new friends and improving the city I call home, left me feeling happy and satisfied. David Sedaris’s daily pilgrimage suddenly doesn’t seem that unappealing. Perhaps, one day, Sheffield City Council will name a bin lorry after me too. 

This article was adapted from issue 11


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