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“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
I’ve put off writing this post for a while because its something that I am still sorting out. What started as a simple challenge has become a journey to know more, do more and take a hard look at my own habits. Although there is progress, I will be the first to admit, I have a long way to go.
Why I pick up trash (and you should too)
I love the outdoors. I hike and adventure outside on a weekly basis. I teach Scouts and my own children to leave things better than they found them, and try to model that in my own life. So, when I read that the Granite Gear Groundskeepers, a group of outdoor-loving people that were committed to picking up trash on every trail they set foot on, was forming a new team, it seemed like a natural fit. I was interested because it sounded kind of fun, but I also knew that it would keep me accountable to leaving the trail better than I found it. It was a personal challenge.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
2019 has been a big year for this small and mighty team. We’ve hauled over 4,684 lbs of trash off of our trails and waterways across the US and we’re not done yet!
According to my hiking journal, I’ve collected trash on 65 hikes this year (as soon as the snow melted). 5 of them were larger group clean ups that I organized with our Scout Troop, Women Who Hike and Co-Workers. But most times I just hiked alone or with my friends and we picked stuff up. Together we hauled over 350 lbs of trash off the trail and we’re hoping for one more big clean up event at the end of the month before the snow.
Picking up trash is easy
- Grab some friends (optional)
- Go outside
- Bring a bag
- Properly dispose or recycle what you find
Here’s a list of some of the items I’ve used on clean up hikes. Safety first!
- Reusable bags or better yet, a bag you would throw away (ie: bread bag, etc.)
- Gloves (rubber grip or latex gloves are best)
- Grabber (if you want to get fancy or pick up really gross stuff)
- Widemouth screw top container for sharps and needles (peanut butter jar)
- Hand Sanitizer
- Close toed shoes
- A luggage scale if you want to weigh your trash.
Picking up trash is fun and contagious
You might not think it sounds fun now…but get your friends together, start walking and talking and next thing you know, you’ve got a clean space and a bag full of trash. You might even find that your friends, neighbors and the people you passed along the way start doing it too. It’s not actually “fun” to find trash on the trail, but sometimes you find something unusual that brings a good story or a giggle and it’s cool to do something good. Hiking alone and picking up trash can also be a good way to clear your mind and get a new perspective on the trail.
Picking up trash is good for you
My last post talked about a few ways to get outside and stay out. This is another great way to mix up your outdoor routine and keep yourself motivated. In addition to cleaning up local trails, cleaning up your neighborhood, local park or playground is a great way to give back to your community.
Picking up trash will make you think
Picking up trash is a tangible act of care and kindness. It feels good to do something about the problem, but I also started to think about where all of “that trash” actually goes. It forced me to look at “my trash” and my own consumption through the same lens. It’s overwhelming, depressing and can feel like there’s nothing we can do about it. The bad news is everywhere. Headlines like “You could be swallowing a credit card’s weight in plastic every week”, or the mysterious supply of Garfield Phones washing up on the Coast of France , and the never ending stream of heartbreaking photos of what plastic is doing to our oceans and wildlife can make you want to stick your head in the sand. Picking up other people’s trash helped me look at my own waste stream and become more engaged in larger sustainability conversations and actions.
Confessions of a recovering ‘wishcycler’
Collecting materials is not the same as recycling them. It’s only when a material is recycled into something else that we realize the economic and environmental benefits. Anything short of this, and we’re simply creating a problem that results in a negative environmental impact.
I recently found out that I am a wishcycler. I want to recycle EVERYTHING because it makes me feel good. I used to believe my collection would all go to to the right place and a ‘recycling fairy’ would sort and deliver any questionable items to the right pile, where it could then magically regenerate into something useful or dissolve harmlessly into the earth. Nope. Picking up trash makes me want to know the truth about where trash goes…and the recycling process. Some new friends that work in the field of Waste Minimization told me how it really works and I was so bummed out to discover that there were things I thought I could recycle that actually belong in the trash (and that I was contaminating my recycling). In other bad news…just because your plastic coffee cup lid has a number on it, it doesn’t mean it is recyclable. But, like the quote at the top of this page says, now that we know better, we can do better.” I am making some changes at home and work and hope to visit a recycling facility in the Spring.
Start with the small things
Small changes can become big changes if everyone does a little bit. Picking up trash while I’m hiking has made me more aware of the choices I make and the waste I create. Some examples of other small choices I make are backcountry hygeine , food packaging, bike commuting and reducing single use plastic.
Even if you only pick up one piece of trash, it’s ONE….instead of NONE.
What if we all made one small change per week next year? A couple of weeks ago, REI published this handy 52 week OPT TO ACT PLAN; small, actionable steps in a simple 1 page calendar. The very first challenge, Dec wk 1 is: Make cleaning up a part of your daily habits.
After this experience, I still believe that most trash is unintentional, like food wrappers, microtrash, water bottles and stuff that falls out of your pocket. As one would expect, trash on the trails also grows as the population grows. Most parks do a good job of providing trash and recycling cans, but we need more…and we need education on how to dispose of waste properly. We also need more education about what the trash left behind actually does to our water supply and wildlife.
I ran into these great signs in Duluth when I was hiking the Blue Map section. The city of Duluth is on a campaign to ‘make a stink about’ dog poop and even have a hilarious video you need to watch right now. I’ve lost count of how many dog poop bags I’ve hauled out this year. Its a lot! If you bag your dog’s poop, please carry it with you until you see a trash can. Don’t leave it, even if you plan to come back for it. There is no such thing as the poop fairy.
Overall, the Superior Hiking Trail was the cleanest trail I set foot on all year, so kudos to all of you SHT hikers and volunteers! Nice job packing it out! Most ‘litter’ there was stuff that was ditched at the trailhead, thrown out of car windows or junk burned in fire rings.
My pet peeves?
- Dog Poop Bags
- Aluminum foil or cans in fire rings.
I’m proud to be a part of the Groundskeepers Legacy team next year, so you’ll still find me out there cleaning things up. Will you join us in leaving it better? Already in the habit of tidying our outdoor spaces? The Groundskeepers are taking applications for the 2020 team! If you are interested, head over and apply quick!
Tell me about your journey, clean up efforts or ideas for moving towards zero waste (or even less waste). Questions? Shoot me a note in the comment section below or head over to the Wandering Pine Facebook Page to continue the conversation. Want to see more pictures of the fun we had and some of the weird things I found on the trail? Motivate yourself over to the @wandering.pine instagram and check out my Groundskeeper and National Clean Up Day story and feed.
I’d love to hear from you!