Trash talking

Clearing up the rubbish epidemic plaguing our trails is going to take more than just litter picking – we need a sea change in how to respect the countryside.

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Words by Julia Hobson

Rather than let it all pile up, Trash Free Trails’ Dom Ferris has decided to get his hands dirty

It’s late one spring evening and the last rays of the sun’s light are filtering through tall trees in an old woodland, lighting up carpets of bluebells on the forest floor. A perfect ribbon of singletrack snakes its way through the hazy blue ocean of flowers. On the surface it couldn’t sound more idyllic to us as riders…but the reality, as ever, is that all is not as it seems.

Hidden just out of sight beneath nature’s carpet is an underlay of human trash; old plastic bottles, crisp packets, drinks cans and no doubt a recently discarded disposable mask.

You brought it with you, so why not take it home?

Let’s face it, this could be a scene from any trail in the UK right now. Many of us are guilty of riding through without even really noticing this litter. But why? It’s not because we don’t care. Have we stopped seeing it because we’re so used to it being there? Or have we become depressed into inaction by the scale of the planet’s trash problem?

A Spring (not-so) clean

Those of us who are riders, runners and outdoor enthusiasts watched the natural world thrive this spring as wildlife returned to tourist-free cities, air pollution dropped to the lowest levels seen in decades, and many of us had the rare opportunity of enforced time at home to get outside and take advantage of watching the season unfold in our local areas. Stopping mid-ride to smell the wild garlic, witnessing the hedgerows turning increasingly green, and hearing birdsong fill the air. Despite the sense that the world was in complete turmoil, nature was there to remind us that life goes on.

A rogue’s gallery of detritus from just one stretch of trail

It seemed that more people than ever were outside enjoying nature and finding a new passion for the outdoors on bikes and on foot.

Yet as lockdown eased, images of vast quantities of rubbish left discarded throughout some of the UK’s most beautiful areas flooded news channels and social media pages, and shocked, saddened and bewildered those of us used to enjoying the natural beauty of these places. Even at a local level, trash seemed to become more prevalent on trailsides than ever.

A small boost for one trial user, a huge downer for everyone else

It’s all too easy to point the finger at those new to the outdoors as culprits, blaming a lack of respect for the natural world as the reason. But is this really the case, and if so, why does this attitude exist? Trash Free Trails founder Dom Ferris believes he understands one of the fundamental reasons for the problem of littering, and more importantly, where the solutions will come from.

Trash Free Trails

Dom has long been aware of the growing problem of litter on our trails, and has made it his mission to do something about it.
Trash Free Trails (TFT) is a community focused not-for-profit organisation founded by Dom and his friend Ben Gaby in 2017. They aim to stem the tide of trash and return the trails to the way they should be, by reducing plastic pollution in wild places by 75 per cent in 2025, as well as trying to understand the effect of litter (and plastic in particular) on 
our ecosystems.

Coed y Brenin Spring Clean 2019: leading by example

They aim to achieve this by motivating and supporting community action, campaigning positively for industry engagement, and most importantly, by trying to reconnect people everywhere with their wild selves through purposeful adventure.

This last point is the one Dom considers most important.

It’s hard for many of us to understand why anyone would discard their trash in such beautiful places. But TFT put a large part of it down to a concept they call Environmental Disconnection. Somewhere along the line as a species, we’ve lost our bond with nature and our surroundings – a love and appreciation of the natural world we live in, and a desire to keep it as nature intended.

It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it

We live increasingly busy and digitally dominated lives, and simply don’t notice things in the way we once used to. Both the beautiful and the ugly. The recognition of trees, birds, flora and fauna, signs of the seasons changing, but also the things that are out of place in this environment.

This disconnection means a vast proportion of the population doesn’t even notice litter in wild places, and some of those who do, either no longer really see it as out of place, or don’t feel compelled enough to pick up other people’s litter in order to return those places to how they should look. It doesn’t feel like their responsibility.

Bag it and bin it: don’t bag it and sling it

We’ve all got multiple different reasons for loving the wonderful sport of mountain biking. But a common theme for most of us, is the places our bikes take us to: mountains, woods, big open spaces where we can escape from the routine monotony of daily life and be surrounded by nature in all its glory. The restorative power to our physical and mental wellbeing of escaping into these wild places on our bikes is incredible, and fundamental to why many of us love riding as much as we do.

It’s for this reason that many of us care deeply about the state of our trails. Most riders wouldn’t choose to throw litter in the places they ride, as who wants to see their favourite trails looking unattractive with discarded trash everywhere, in a place where they have come to seek out nature and the beauty of the natural world? This is the connection Dom talks of that has broken down for many, or just become a bit rusty for others.

Don’t make me angry…

For those whom the appreciation of the natural environment is important, it’s easy to become angry at sights of littering. But Dom believes getting angry is not the answer. Trash Free Trails has a policy of not using blame, shame and guilt to motivate people to action. Take a look at campaigns such as ‘Don’t be a Tosser’, and others that aimed to spark public outrage and shock people into action through pictures of filthy beaches and parks, have they really worked? Looking at recent pictures in the news, it doesn’t seem so.

Still life with crisp bag, nails, beer bottle and dog dirt, Helvellyn 2019

These pictures frustrate and upset us, but how many of us have really taken action other than labelling the litterers as disgusting, rather than focusing on why the problem exists, and whether our action is really the right way to approach the answer? In the echo chambers we all live in, what does posting a picture on Instagram of a trailside littered with trash, and venting our frustration at the culprits really do? It certainly doesn’t get the message to those who need to hear it.

TFT believes the solution is to work towards encouraging people to re-engage and reconnect with nature and the environment so that they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for looking after their trails.

The changes start with us as individuals; becoming more aware of where we are riding, taking the time to appreciate what is on our doorstep so we can become closer to it, more aware of its natural state. From this hopefully develops a desire to look after those places and better that environment, and in doing so, inspire others to do the same.

Nowhere is too remote for Trash Free Trails’ band of litter pickers

This concept was one TFT chose to emphasise in its most recent campaign. During last year’s Spring Trail Clean Tour, 282 TFT volunteers removed a massive 500 kilos of litter from just eight UK mtb trail centres, including 644 plastic bottles, 756 confectionery wrappers, and 830 dog poo bags.

The plan was to make 2020 an even bigger event, taking in more venues and hopefully engaging an even larger #trashmob to tackle the litter. Unfortunately, the global Covid-19 pandemic had other plans. But Dom quickly came up with the alternative idea of a DIY trail clean and the #selfLESSisolation project was born.

“We realised that we don’t have to be together to work together to protect our trails and wild places. What’s more, after 17 days of Groundhog Day meanders, we had come to value our ‘home trails’ so much that we couldn’t think of a place that deserved our protection more.”

Through several simple steps it encouraged folks wherever they were to take part in the project on their own local trails.

Themes included taking time to notice and observe both natural and unnatural sights and sounds in a favourite local spot, making a map of particular places where litter had accumulated. Documenting a plan, going out and gathering the litter, then recording and reporting what you found. Through these steps, the project focused not only on the collecting of litter, but on finding a purposeful activity for people to engage with at a time where many were struggling with mental health issues due to the lockdown restrictions imposed upon us.

The project linked the process of reconnecting with nature with the simple yet powerful act of removing a handful of rubbish from the places we love, and the pride and self-satisfaction at seeing a piece of ground returned to its natural state.

I consider myself as someone who recognises and appreciates the value of the outdoors and nature in my life, but the project made me realise it’s a long time since I made the time to slow down and remember this. It forced me to take in more of my surroundings while out on my daily hour of lockdown riding from home, and it gave me a deeper appreciation for what was right on my doorstep than ever before. I developed a sense of pride for my nearest local urban woodland on the edge of Bradford and became determined to tidy it up.

Through trying to follow the steps TFT had outlined, I became aware of what a huge amount of litter there was lying on the trails, some of it plastic pollution that had been there for years. As a fairly environmentally conscious person, I was ashamed that I hadn’t really noticed how bad the problem was before.

The sense of personal satisfaction I gained from gradually clearing trash from it over the course of several weeks was huge. Going forwards, I felt empowered to continue caring for ‘my’ woods.

Dom kept track of mentions and tags on Instagram during lockdown, as a way to try and measure the success of the #selfLESSisolation initiative. He recorded over 115 acts in different places, and over 300 people who posted about having got involved. Connecting the dots of these individual positive actions to create a giant map showed the network of action across the UK and even further afield. And that’s just the ones he heard about. It’s clear the DIY clean was a success. There are countless stories of people getting to know their local wild spaces better and beginning to care for them, and collectively all of these having a larger global impact.

State of our Trails Report

We all know that litter looks unsightly, but more than this, plastic pollution is a clear and emerging threat to ecosystems. As yet there is only a basic understanding of its effects in the terrestrial environment, but TFT seeks to change this through its ‘State of our Trails Report’ (SooT), the first ever scientific research project to investigate plastic pollution across the UK’s trails and wild spaces.

Working alongside academics at Bangor University, the SooT report will act as a hub around which all of TFT’s projects will revolve for the next five years. It hopes to mobilise an army of riders, runners and outdoor enthusiasts to gather data for the baseline report, logging details of the trash found through an online Litter Log portal.

From this it will be able to paint a true picture of the trail litter issue, and work out what questions the research needs to address, identify potential solutions, and help shape impactful policy.

Partnering with businesses in the bike industry is a vital way to increase engagement with Trash Free Trails and spread the message, but having the right people on board when you are in a partnership is key. Dom believes he has found this in the team at Bosch e-bike systems, with whom TFT has partnered to launch the first phase of the SooT report. Their partnership was confirmed during lockdown, at a time when it would have been easy for big companies to push projects like this to one side.

Tamara Winograd, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Bosch eBike Systems had this to say: “We are excited to be working together with Trash Free Trails to help develop the ground-breaking State of our Trails report. As an industry leader in eBike systems manufacturing, we see it as our responsibility to help promote and sustain the upkeep of wild spaces that our riders so frequently enjoy, so we felt it was important to be involved.

“Bosch eBike Systems shares a common goal with Trash Free Trails, Trek and the rest of our mountain biking community; for our wild spaces to be nurtured and cared for so that our riders can continue to enjoy using them for years to come. Collaboration is key to the success of this project, so we are proud to be working with fellow change-makers Trash Free Trails and Trek in order to help instigate positive change.

“Data collection is a fundamental part of this study, which is why the first step we’ll be taking is to supply a fleet of Bosch-powered electric mountain bikes in collaboration with our mutual partner, Trek, to aid the efforts of the study volunteers.”

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There are plans to build trailers for the e-bikes to carry trash collected, and along with the obvious benefit of being able to cover more ground in the same amount of time, and carry more trash out, the bikes provided will also make areas more accessible for trail cleaning to more riders, both novice and experienced, and therefore increase data collection.

Citizen scientists required…

If you’ve taken any trail cleaning action so far this year, no matter whether it was a five-minute clean at the end of a ride, or a bigger organised day of trail clearing, you can enter the data into the SooT Litter Log by clicking the ‘get started’ button at the bottom of the page:

The data is a vital part of the baseline report and will help form the questions that the five-year research project will seek to answer, so the more we can all contribute, the better.

As mountain bikers, we are often (mostly unfairly) perceived by other outdoor user groups as a nuisance, dangerous, and causing damage to the trails. But by visibly getting involved in trail clean-ups, and having a positive impact on our local environments, perhaps we can begin to challenge and change these perceptions. We may not personally be littering, but we can be the solution to the problem of litter on our trails, and as mountain bikers, become known as the community who are driving forward the Trash Free Trails movement.

There’s a need for us not to become angry ranting riders, blaming younger people and new outdoor users for causing the problem, but rather inspiring them and leading by example in doing our bit to keep the trails clean, while seeking to encourage and foster their connection to the outdoors.

If we all develop a sense of ownership, pride and responsibility for our local trails and feel compelled and empowered to look after them, then perhaps Trash Free Trails is right and we’ll start to turn the tide on the problem of littering.

So head out for a ride this weekend on your home trails, but take a little longer, stop and remind yourself of all the things that make it special, and those that don’t. Breathe in the fresh air, listen to the sounds of nature. Rather than get angry at the person who has left that plastic bottle on the trailside, pick it up, take it home and bin it. Be proud of where you ride. This is your local, and it needs you.

Words by Julia Hobson