Reflections on our litter picking adventures in 2020
Updated: Jan 3
It started with just one bag of litter, collected on the beach on New Year's Eve 2019, a photo shared on social media, and an idea - What if everyone who went for a walk took a bag with them and picked up litter. Not everything they saw, but just one bag.
Just1bag2020 was born.
We hoped we might inspire some kind of ripple effect so set ourselves a goal to fill (or inspire others to collect) 2,020 bags of litter in 2020 (you can read about our original goals and how we got started here).
12 months later, reflecting on what's happened, we never imagined how things would shape up or how much this project would come to mean to our family in a truly tumultuous year. By the end of 2020, 2142 people around the world have joined in, collecting 24,235 bags of litter across 6 continents, 46 countries and 45 states in the the USA (by the way, we're still on the hunt for collectors in Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Kansas & North Dakota if anyone can help out so we can get the full sweep... and Antarctica is proving a little elusive too!).
It's been quite an adventure! Sarah had five minutes of fame when Boston25 TV News invited her on for an interview, we did a podcast, we made the front page of our local paper three times (clearly some slow news weeks in our small town), and our local State Senator got in touch to give Poppy (8) and Toby (6) an Official Citation from the State Senate to say thanks for their efforts. Of course, we persuaded him to join us for a quick litter pick too :). The daughter of a friend from University I haven't seen for 15 years wrote to Blue Peter to tell them about what we were up to, and the kids were thrilled when two Blue Peter badges arrived in the mail.
All of that was the icing on the cake and certainly kept us motivated, but was never really what this campaign was about. We started Just1bag2020 as a family project to keep us busy, but also because we were feeling overwhelmed by everything going on in the world, particularly the ticking clock linked to the irreversible impact of climate change and a pervasive feeling that we were powerless to do anything about it. We wanted to do our bit towards driving change, no matter how small. There have been various times throughout the year when we've felt overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, standing on a beautiful beach surveying all of the microplastics tangled up in the seaweed, or returning to a spot we cleaned up one weekend to see it strewn with litter again a few days later. But we've tried to stay focused on a quote we stumbled on at the start of the year:
"I am only one, but still I am one, I cannot do everything, but I can do something, and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”
Edward E. Hale
When COVID struck in March and we went into lockdown, our family walks collecting trash from the trails gave us purpose, a reason to get out of the house. When work got too intense, I'd go for a run and pick up litter en route ('plogging' = an English-Swedish combination of jogging and 'plocka upp' which means 'pick up' in Swedish). When I was sick of video calls and looking at a screen all day, I'd escape for a 'walk and talk' phone meeting with a colleague and pick up trash while we chatted. When the kids were driving us crazy (or vice versa!), we'd get outside for a socially distanced litter pick. It became our way of coping - a small act we could control in a world that often felt out of control. And of course, we appreciate how privileged we are to have been able to make this our focus in a year which has brought uncertainty, difficulty and tragedy to so many.
We'd be lying if I said the kids were always enthusiastic about being dragged out in the rain or snow to pick up trash, but it's been incredible to spend this time together as a family. It's clear they're learning some valuable life lessons... that kindness matters, that some people care about their local environment and others don't, that what you throw away doesn't just disappear but ends up somewhere else, and perhaps most importantly, that what you do as an individual does matter and can inspire others to change. These are lessons that have crystallized for me too. Having picked up literally thousands of littered or washed up empty cans, plastic bottles, wrappers, plastic bags, latex gloves and discarded face masks, it's hard now not to think differently about what we buy and consume as a family, how stuff gets manufactured and where it all ends up when we throw it away. I was astounded to learn that 15 billion gallons of bottled water were sold in the US in 2019. I can't begin to imagine how many end up being littered, but I know we'll often pick up 50+ plastic bottles on an hour long hike or beach clean... and they're all there again a few weeks later.
We've collected hundreds and hundreds of Bud Light and Coke cans, McDonald's straws, and plastic cups from Dunkin. We've become experts at spotting flashes of blue, red, pink or orange in the bushes. It's clear that brands need to do much more to take responsibility for the entire supply-chain (from creation to disposal) and reduce their reliance on single-use plastics. On one beach-clean this month, we picked up 102 straws in less than an hour. We love it now that our kids decline straws in restaurants, having seen so many strewn about this year.
Without doubt, the most important thing that's kept us going is the daily inspiration from the hundreds of people around the world who have joined in, supported us and filled a bag. From family members, friends and neighbors, to the kids' school teachers, an entire community of litter-pickers we've got to know through social media, to total strangers who saw the hashtag and decided to get involved. From Brownie and Cub Scout Troops in Massachusetts to official clean up organizations in Florida, California and Wales. Local schools, teenagers using their hour of daily exercise while on lockdown, families in India, Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Argentina, South Africa... a plogging pony in Austria, Bob the Plog Dog in the Netherlands, running clubs in Switzerland and Scotland. Nahla Summers collected bags for us while completing her World Record Breaking 5,000 mile Kindness Tour around the UK on an ElliptiGO bike. And we were honored to team up with Harper's Army, a movement of people created following the death of an incredible young Australian boy who had been passionate about saving the planet.
Businesses got involved too! The team at Reward Gateway (a Boston-based tech company) partnered with us to encourage their employees to conduct socially distant clean-ups for their corporate volunteering day, and the Washington DC and Boston offices of Bain filled 37 bags as well. Andrea Evans, who I'm lucky to work with at C Space, collected a bagful early in the year. She inspired her Uncle in New Mexico to do the same. He caught the litter picking bug and he ended up setting his family a litter-picking challenge. Their extended family across the States has now collected more than 1,100 bags of trash. That's the ripple effect in action!
That was what we really wanted to trigger when we started this, a chain of positive action where people could easily make a small difference, just one bag at a time. And as Just1bag2020 continues to evolve and more people get involved, we're excited to imagine the impact we can have in the coming months. We've set up this website, we're registering as a not-for-profit, Sarah's joined the Board of Keep Massachusetts Beautiful and we're keen to encourage corporates and community organizations to get involved.
Who knows what 2021 will bring?
To join in with Just1bag2020, just grab a bag next time you're out on a walk, fill it up, snap a photo and post it to social media with the hashtag #just1bag2020. We'll add you to our collector count and bag total, and you'll make a small dent on your local community. You might feel a little self-conscious at first, but we promise you'll feel good afterwards. It only takes 10 minutes. Tell someone what you've done and encourage them to do the same.
In 2021, we're aiming to grow the #just1bag community to 5,000+ collectors.
Let's turn the ripple into a tidal wave!
This blog originally appeared on Phil's LinkedIn page in December 2020.