Recently, on a jog along the Mill River in Northampton, I ran by three bags of dog poop neatly lined up on a log and arranged in a rainbow sequence: green, blue, purple. The sight was almost beautiful, had it not been for the plastic and animal waste waiting to be ferried into one of Northampton’s most precious ecological resources just feet away. It bothered me— it really bothered me.
Trail running, walking or simply spending time in the woods provides immeasurable benefit, connecting us with the natural world and providing a reprieve from overwhelm. The unfortunate reality is that far too often, we’ve left behind damaging traces of our time spent in the natural world — in this case, a colorful but disturbing array of plastic-encapsulated waste.
Converting my frustration into miles, I ran back to my house, grabbed a trash bag and followed dog poop bags down the trail, across the Mill River, around Hospital Hill and back home in a smelly game of connect-the-dots. In total, I collected 23 bags of dog waste.
I’d heard of “plogging” before, a delightful combination of two Swedish phrases, “plocka upp” and “jogga,” meaning “to pick up,” and “to jog,” respectively, but had never imagined it could be fun to try and run around with a bag full of trash. The mechanics of it sounded difficult; running can be hard enough holding nothing whatsoever.
But the Swedes are onto something — plogging is a dynamic twist on a straightforward activity, not to mention incredibly gratifying. Its Wikipedia page estimates that 2 million people plog daily in 100 countries, with some plogging events having attracted more than 3 million participants.
Plogging is the fusion of an everyday activity with something that, as an everyday activity, is transformative. At times the failings of our solid waste system are overwhelming; everyday stewardship can be the antidote to some of the anxiety associated with these enormous environmental challenges. Bite-sized acts of stewardship connect us with our local ecosystems and provide us the opportunity to care for and learn from the natural world, all while experiencing gratitude for the restorative power of nature.
A lot of my work involves thinking and talking about trash. Not too long ago, I was asked to try and understand the mentality of people who litter, but I want to challenge the premise of this question. Littering and illegal dumping are, of course, partially the responsibility of individuals, but not entirely. Trash in our environment represents the failure of our solid waste systems and inaction from the corporations who pump out disposable products with no accountability for what happens to them when the product reaches the end of its life.
Consumers have little say in how products are made and, therefore, little power in seeking out sustainable waste disposal options. We can use our voices and purchasing power to demand changes, but until state and federal governments hold industries accountable for their products at the end of their usable life, our waste crisis will persist and the environment will bear the majority of these costs.
The magnitude of the waste and specifically the plastic crisis can feel daunting. That’s where plogging comes in.
I’m not the first to appreciate the mental wellness benefits that come with running, but it took me a long time to love running. It wasn’t until a friend told me the majority of my runs should be comfortable — pushing myself, but not so hard that I’m burned out at the end of every run; this is what makes running sustainable for me and allows me to work toward larger goals.
In much the same way, plogging is a small remedy in the context of larger environmental goals, while providing a simple way to integrate sustainability into everyday habits. It’s not the solution to the looming waste crisis and may not even make a huge impact, but easy ways of making stewardship routine is what makes it truly sustainable.
On a recent plogging event, about a dozen of us covered four miles, bags in hand and bobbing up and down along the trail to snag cigarette butts, plastic wrappers, bottle caps and lighters. In total, we cleaned up about one pound of litter each. While 12 pounds of trash represents only a small fraction of the waste in our environment, we finished our run glowing with the satisfaction of having the opportunity to care for our local trails and waterways.
We explained to curious strangers what we were doing and talked about what infrastructure would help prevent cigarette butts from ending up in the storm drain. I recognize the enormous privilege I have in plogging — access to safe spaces, time and information, to name a few. I also recognize plogging isn’t for everyone, but there is a way for each of us to find joy in doing something for the Earth and maybe, the smaller the better.
Kelsey Wentling works as an environmental advocate along the Connecticut River Valley. She previously worked as a camp counselor at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and is glad to be partnering with them once again.
Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 12 years. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the Hitchcock Center has adapted its programming and has a sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges. To help the Hitchcock Center survive this difficult time, consider a donation.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.