There’s a reason why pictures of discarded bottles, cans, wrappers, and other miscellaneous leave-behinds are often the “star” of my Instagram feed. They represent stories of stewardship and care behind every piece of litter I’ve picked up.
People are always happy to cheer for those who are willing to get a little gritty. I’ve been thanked more times than I can count for picking up litter. At first, I savored the acknowledgement, but then my appreciation turned to friendly discernment. Why weren’t they helping me? I don’t want thanks anymore—I want you to join me.
Last Saturday was National Trails Day, a day organized by the American Hiking Society to celebrate the trails we love and to promote outdoor stewardship. I kicked things off early by hosting a trails contest – I challenged friends and social media pals to pick up at least two pieces of litter, take a picture, and then tag it with makepactpackitout on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
Ten litter crusaders responded to the challenge and combined shared 25 pictures documenting their conquests. I chose one photo at random and donated $15 to American Hiking Society in the litter picker-uppers name. A photo posted by the Instagram account, Clean Sweep, was the lucky winner. The man behind the account regularly “sweeps” trails along the Pacific Crest Trail in California.
Research on litter indicates people are likely to do what they consider to be the norm. If an area is already trashed it can be be an open invitation to toss that bottle or can onto the ground. Fortunately, the inverse is also true; if an area is pristine, people are less likely to litter. This is a pretty good incentive for picking up litter in your favorite (or any) natural area.
For the last two years, I’ve removed hundreds of bottles, cans, and miscellaneous plastic from Mt. Hood Ski Bowl, an area popular for night skiing and some would argue, a culture of drinking on the mountain. What started out as hill training for the summer race season, has turned into an annual trash clean-up.
On Tuesday, I did my first run of the season and removed 58 bottles and cans from the mountain. When I reached the summit with a handful of discarded bottles in hand, I was greeted by Ski Bowl employees who were doing trail maintenance. One of the men “recognized” me and was aware of my past clean-ups on the mountain. We chatted about the litter problem, discussed solutions, and then he invited me back in a few weeks after the snow melts to join him for an all-employee trash pick-up.
Did my past trashy runs encourage the employee clean-up? Who knows. Studies by psychologist Robert Cialdini have shown the highest indicator someone will pick up litter is if they see someone doing it. When you’re bending over to pick up that wrapper or bottle nestled in the bushes, you’re doing more good than you may realize.
And now social media has become a boon for litter advocates everywhere. No longer do you need to experience someone picking up litter, the conservation behavior is now just a mouse-click away. There’s hundreds of social media accounts dedicated to showcasing litter clean-ups (#Take2Miss and #pickup1Million are two impressive examples). It’s hard to ignore detritus images trashing the environment. The images represent disapproval for littering and reinforce picking up litter is a behavior norm.
My Instagram feed is littered with pictures of litter I’ve picked up. I love seeing your pretty pictures of mountains and sunsets, but litter on our trails deserves attention too. By posting photos of your litter pick-ups, you’re raising awareness and encouraging others to follow your lead.
After being frustrated with seeing litter on trails, I launched Make a Pact, Pack It Out, an online project using social media (primarily Instagram) to encourage people to post pictures of litter they find and pack out using the hashtag #makeapactpackitout.