Head out onto your local trails, smell the spring air and enjoy the beauty. That’s all the inspiration you need to pick up just one piece of rubbish.
The last 12 months have been a boom time for our sport – new riders rushed into mountain biking, old hands returned, quality bike shops killed it thanks to the increase in bike sales, and it seemed everyone was heading to the local woods to go riding. This is great news – more riders means more people having fun, leading healthier lives and, in the long run, more trails, better access and greater recognition for our sport.
But it also means more rubbish in the natural environment – where there are people, there is litter. And now after a year in which wild places saved plenty of us from going stir crazy, our trails are looking dirtier than ever. Couple that with the increase in single-use plastic following the pandemic, and the known damage spoiling the natural environment can have on biodiversity, human health and mental well-being, and there’s a pile up of rubbish.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, community not-for-profit organisation Trash Free Trails now has big plans to reach more people, educate them about the value of nature and finally stem the tide of trash on our trails. Founded in 2017 with a simple Instagram post calling for people to clean up their trails, TFT now has a global reach with more than 1,250 volunteers, while in 2019-2020 some 2,500km of trail was cleansed of rubbish in more than 300 trail cleans.
The first thing to figure out is just how much rubbish there is out there. Amazingly, there’s almost no data to be had on this or whether the situation really is getting worse. All we have right now are anecdotal reports, TFT tells us. We know more about the rubbish in our oceans than on dry land, but annual plastic released into the latter is estimated to be between four and 23 times greater than into the marine environment, according to Dom Ferris, TFT founder. “It is painfully clear to those of us who ride, run and roam that our trails and wild places are becoming ever-more choked with litter. But can we back up this instinctive, anecdotal knowledge scientifically? No……Not yet.” TFT has been gathering data since last July for a State of Our Trails report, designed to remove, record and report just what’s out there. Due to be published this summer, the early signs are that there’s currently too much single-use plastic for volunteers to remove on a single trail clean, and that the most commonly found items are Lucozade, Red Bull and Coca–Cola branded products.
We spent 30 minutes picking our way up a trail that takes 45 seconds to ride and found the usual suspects lurking in the bushes – water bottles that had made a bid for freedom, shattered mudguards and even a pair of underpants. Taking a look around most trailheads and car parks also reveals a litany of zip-ties, dog poo bags, odd socks, drinks bottles and banana skins.
Rich Breedon from Trash Free Trails isn’t surprised. “Where you naturally stop on a ride is probably where other people stop too,” he says. “Look down and I’d give you an 80 per cent chance there’s some rubbish on the floor.
“‘What are we all going to do about it?’ People ask me this all the time,” Rich says: “‘How can I help?’ The response is difficult – all you need to do is to pick up a bit of litter, and see where that journey takes you. That’s all it takes to have a journey.”
That sounds like an easy solution, but there have been litter-picking campaigns for decades, and shaming people into clearing up rubbish simply doesn’t work, Rich says. Anyone reading this magazine is extremely unlikely to drop litter and add to the problem either so simply picking up litter isn’t a silver bullet. And that’s where TFT comes in, the idea is to
build an organisation that changes how people see nature and ultimately makes itself redundant.
People trash their trails if they’re disconnected from nature, from themselves, from the community, Rich says. “It’s all very well to remove litter, but we’ll be back to square one as more will be dropped. The best way to solve that problem then is to invoke that connection – we want roots and community, we want to empower people to do it for themselves, and that’s what TFT is doing, we’re genuinely a huge community, from Wakefield to Kathmandu.”
TFT increased its social media following massively during 2020 – it now reaches nearly 30 million unique users – but the rubbish keeps coming. “In lockdown there was a massive influx of people to the trails and a lot of those people wouldn’t otherwise have had connections with the trail,” Rich says. “These are first-time users and I’d put a good bet on it being their first walk.”
The trash mob
The next step for TFT is to build its presence, growing both in terms of the amount of rubbish the organisation can collect and how many people it can reach. This spring there’s a series of trail cleans during April, meaning you should be just in time to head along to your local woods and do some good work. There isn’t a big organised pick this year for obvious reasons, instead you do your own DIY trail clean, write down what you find and then submit the data to trashfreetrails.org so they can put it all together and figure out the state of the trails.
The goal is ambitious: reduce single- use pollution by 75 per cent by 2025, thanks to the efforts of riders like you, whom TFT dubs the Trash Mob. There’s also an A-Team, TFT’s elite group of volunteers. It’s a smart approach: make as much noise as possible that looking after our trails is something we could all do, without telling people what to do. TFT wants to normalise respect for the trails to the point where the organisation does itself out of a job, as it were. It sounds like an impossible task but with enough coverage it really could work.
TFT is also targeting a small demographic of young people to give them the opportunity to learn mountain bike skills and a connection to nature at the same time. Called the Trash Mob Academy, a pilot scheme ran in September – with British Cycling and The Yorkshire Trail collective at Leeds Urban Bike Park – that was so successful in turning round the attitudes of the students that there will be a full-blown course come May.
“These are difficult kids – some of them have been excluded from mainstream education and lots of them were on bad paths,” Rich says. “There were two kids in particular from the pilot, Billy and Moe. They hated each other. Now they’re best mates and organising litter pics in their village.”
This weekend then, head out onto your local trails, smell the spring air and enjoy the beauty of it all. Hopefully that’s all the inspiration you need to pick up just one piece of rubbish you find, or perhaps join in with the TFT spring clean.