The Definition of a Win-Win-Win-Win-Win
Well here we are, high-fiving each other with sweaty hands that are freshly freed from sweaty vinyl gloves, laughing about our unexpectedly sore biceps, and agreeing that indeed there was no better way to spend our lunch hour. We just returned from a three-mile jog through NEMO’s hometown, Dover, New Hampshire. But not just any jog – this was a “plog.”
See, we just learned “plogging” is a thing. The practice of jogging and picking up trash along the way is gaining popularity in other countries, and we wanted to give it a try ourselves. The concept is simple: you bring a trash bag on your run, and when you see a piece of trash, you pick it up. We loved it because it gave us a break from our computers (win), some time in the sunshine (win), camaraderie with our coworkers (win), a few miles of exercise (win), and most enjoyably a chance to be of service to our community and help clean up (big win).
As first-time ploggers, we jotted down our observations and newfound wisdom so we could pass it along.
9 Roadside Trash Collecting Lessons
1. Plogging Equipment
If you’re like me, and appreciate running for the simplicity of the gear required (grab your sneakers and go!), you’ll find that the plastic bag and glove required present an un-intimidating amount of preparation. That said, we did identify some small improvements to be made to our gear.
Breathable Gloves: Gloves are a necessary evil, especially when encountering some of the unmentionables we did (see lesson #2). But where we went wrong is choosing sweat-trapping vinyl gloves from our office cleaning closet instead of selecting breathable gloves fit for the task. It was a cool 60-degree day, so our bodies were cool but our hands were panting for air and dripping with sweat.
Sweaty hands after peeling off our vinyl gloves.
Easy-Close Plastic Bag: Again, the office cleaning closet supplied our needs, but in retrospect a bag with an easier closure on top might have been better. Flaps or drawstrings could go a long way in keeping trash secure. Or, you can just keep a strong grasp on your bag and don’t let your trash go flying in the wind (like I may have done 500 yards into the run).
2. Things We Don’t Pick Up
From the first “no flippin’ way!” moment of the run, we started to catalog a list of items for which the gross factor was too high. Poopy diapers? Nope. Condoms? Not a chance. Cigarette Butts? Not worth it. You have to draw a line somewhere for a casual lunchtime plog, and be honest with yourselves about items that require a higher level of litter intervention than we were prepared to demonstrate with thin gloves and flimsy bags. Maybe next time.
3. Things We Can’t Not Pick Up
On the other hand, we often found ourselves compelled to cross the street or go out of our way for particular types of trash. Are we detouring into the field for that empty 2-liter soda bottle? You bet. When it came down to it, plastic cups and bottles provided an irresistible target for our team. Was it that the red solo cups are an eyesore in roadside landscape or that we’re highly sensitized to the disastrous role of plastics in our ecosystems? Maybe it was a bit of both, but we found ourselves stopping for each plastic bottle we saw.
That, of course, brought up the complex plogging topic of how to not only get these littered bottles off the roadsides, but get them into a recycling facility with the least total environmental impact. We didn’t solve that problem in our three miles, but it was a reminder to at least choose aluminum (widely-recyclable and recycled, but extraction and production of aluminum is an environmentally costly process) or glass (100% recyclable and inert in landfills and roadsides if not recycled) for our drinking vessels.
4. Leapfrogging is Fun, and So Are Trash Intervals
Confession time. When we first started out we debated two strategies: picking up trash while we ran versus running our loop quickly then stopping to pick up trash at a park at the end. This debate lasted about 500 yards before we realized how fun it was to truly plog, scooping up trash along the way and running interval-style.
When Kaitlyn bent to pick up a bottle, Brittany would leapfrog past her. Brittany would stop to address a pile of litter, then sprint to catch up with the group. Brent would run ahead to gain some distance then veer into a field to get some trash further afield. We ran natural intervals based on trash, and without intention our pattern started to resemble running drills my high school coach used to invoke to keep practice exciting.
5. Watch Out for the Pile-Up
Driver’s Ed for runners: when the person in front of you stops quickly to grab some trash, beware of the pile-up. It’s easy to plow right into them, and it happened more than once to us, to the amusement of passers-by. We developed our swerving skills and improved our reaction times on just one run.
6. The Right-Sized Plogging Team
We originally had a larger crew of runners, but schedules happened and we were left with four runners on our lunchtime plogging team. Then we realized this was the perfect number for the trash density in Dover. A larger group would have been unwieldy to manage, especially on back roads with small shoulders. A smaller group would have filled their bags in the first mile. Each location will vary, but we recommend four- to six-member plogging teams.
7. Contests You Can Have
It’s in our NEMO blood: we can’t help making up games as we go, and immediately found ourselves challenging each other to friendly competitions to keep it interesting and fun. A few of our favorites:
Speed Pickup: Keep your momentum! Can you swoop down and grab a piece of trash without breaking your stride?
Most Trash Collected: This is pretty straightforward: who can collect the most trash? Ideally measure this by weight or volume to avoid counting pieces.
Style Points: Set a prize (usually a beer) for the most unusual or unexpected piece of trash collected, or the trash with the most interesting imagined back story. That scribbled break-up note or engraved bamboo back-scratcher could earn you a happy hour.
Relays: How do you make anything more fun? Make it a relay! We imagined countless team approaches to tackling different routes through town, complete with bag replenishment and collection logistics.
8. Unexpected Bicep Workout
We knew we were logging three miles in our Strava accounts, but didn’t expect the bicep workout. It turns out when you’re holding a big plastic bag loaded with wet cardboard and glass bottles far enough away from your legs to avoid shin-scratching encounters, you get a pretty decent arm workout, too. We came back feeling unexpectedly buff in the upper arms.
9. The Feel-Good Factor in the Community
This was the most joyfully unexpected aspect of our little lunchtime experiment. We got waves, shout-outs from drivers, thank-yous from walkers, big smiles, hoots and hollers, thumbs ups, and generally a shower of good feelings from our community. If you ever need an emotional pick-me-up, go pick up trash in town. It felt rewarding to invest in the community we work in. Perhaps the impact is less about the four bags of trash we picked up along one running route, but the act of serving and modeling care for the place we live and work.
Our team of four lunchtime bloggers: Brent (COO), Kaitlyn (Accounting), Brittany (Engineering), Kate (VP Marketing).
It Got Us Trash-Talking
What would it take to stay ahead of the trash in Dover, New Hampshire? Brittany, one of our runners who thru-hiked the AT shared the practice of dedicating a pocket to picking up trash along the trail. Would the regular and visible practice of cleaning up in town eventually foster a greater care and pride? How could we recruit others in Dover, and what infrastructure is needed to support this?
More importantly, as we think about and talk about our trash, how can we collectively grow a greater mindset of reduction? Reduction is the best of the classic triad of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.” Recycling is costly and doesn’t avoid the problem of the resource-intensive initial production. Reusing is ideal when practical, but most of the onus is on manufacturers to design better products and reusable packaging.
Therefore Reduction Is Key
Each of us as consumers or end-users can make choices every day to reduce: to question whether or not we need something before acquiring; to be mindful of choosing quality products designed for longevity and reuse; and to select consumables with no or reusable packaging whenever possible.
These are by no means easy choices to make, and as designers of gear we wrestle with them ourselves. We have a commitment not to just add more stuff to the world: we’ll never design a product that doesn’t offer a meaningfully better experience than what’s already on the market; we design products designed to last; and we focus intently on our supply chain to minimize the impacts of our products. But we have a long way to go. We love the quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela:
“It always seems impossible, until it is done.”
We’re on a mission to push ourselves to examine sustainability and reduction as a company – a challenge that takes design thinking and creativity from all of us. Plogging may be just a fun lunchtime activity, but it serves the dual purpose of keeping us thinking about and talking about the need for reduction with every plastic bottle we scoop up. We hope you will join us in conversation.
When Kate is not scouting new running trails around Dover, she's leading marketing for NEMO. Equal parts passion for running, community, and excess waste make plogging her new favorite lunchtime activity.