Last Friday I moved to Southampton for the final phase of Airline Pilot training. Out of my flat window on the first floor there’s a grass verge and, like most verges, it’s covered in litter. However, this week it has been particularly bad with crisp packets, beer bottles and coffee cups strewn all over the grass. On Thursday evening I decided enough was enough and that I would go for an evening walk and try my hand at the new eco-friendly craze – plogging.
Plogging was founded in Sweden in early 2018 and marries the past-times of jogging and picking up litter. The craze has now spread across the entire globe with dedicated plogging clubs forming in many towns and cities.
My first official plogging expedition ended up being more of a plalking expedition (plogging, but walking, I guess?) because as soon as I bent down to pick up the first piece of litter I noticed just how much litter there really was on the ground. Everywhere I looked there were tiny pieces of rubbish, some floating on top of the grass, some buried right into the soil below. What was intended to be a quick 20 minute litter pick turned out to be well over an hour of scouring every square-inch of grass on the verge, filling three bins full of rubbish.
Whilst the larger, more visible items like beer cans, crisp packets and McDonalds bags took up most of the volume of litter that I picked up, by far the most abundant items were cigarette butts. The majority of people are aware of the dangers of smoking on your personal health and those around you, but not many people know of their effect on the environment. Cigarette butts are not biodegradable. They are made of acetate – a plastic – and will take many hundreds of years to biodegrade. These little plastic filters will still be around somewhere in the environment long after our grandchildren’s grandchildren have left this world.
Not only are these cigarette butts made of plastic, but they are full of the toxic, carcinogenic chemicals present in the rest of the cigarette. After these butts are idly flicked onto a road, a beach, a nature path or a grass verge, they can get picked up by animals who think that they’re food. Microorganisms can also mistake them as food and digest these toxic chemicals, who themselves are eaten by larger animals. Before you know it the chemicals make their way up the food chain, accumulating as they go, into potentially our pets or even the food that we eat. When it rains the chemicals in butts leech into the surrounding soil and enter the aquatic environment. With trillions of cigarette butts being littered every year, these chemicals soon add up to a rather alarming amount.
So what can we do to tackle the problem? Apart from petitioning for cigarette production to be banned, we can implore our friends and family that do smoke to dispose of their cigarettes responsibly. If you know someone that frequently litters their cigarettes, gently point them to the website https://cigarettelitter.org/facts. It can be a pretty awkward conversation killer to ask someone to pick up their cigarette that they’ve just flicked on the floor, so if you don’t feel comfortable confronting someone head-on the website also has an anonymous email page that sends a friendly anonymous email to your friend or family member about the importance of properly disposing of cigarettes.
What did I learn from my plogging experience? Firstly, I learned that when you look really closely, litter is absolutely everywhere, and whilst the ultimate blame can be put on the manufacturers of these products, it is also our collective responsibility to make sure we properly dispose of our rubbish. Councils do employ litter pickers and road sweeps, but they struggle to keep up with the vast quantities of litter dropped every day.
But secondly, and most importantly, I learned that plogging (or plalking, in my case) can really make a massive, positive difference. In the space of just over an hour, I was able to completely clear three grass verges of 99% of the litter. Plogging can keep you fit and healthy, and if you do it as part of group can tackle loneliness, joining together like-minded individuals for a common cause. Just imagine if everyone spent just a few minutes a day clearing up litter outside their house or on their way to work. The environment we live in would be much more attractive and, most importantly, would be safer for us and the wildlife sharing this beautiful planet with us.
So next time you’re walking through your neighbourhood, town centre or local nature trail, make an effort to pick up any litter on the way and get plogging!