I Picked Up 80 Pounds of Trail Trash in a Year. Here's What I Learned
If you're looking for hiking resolutions for 2020, here's what I learned from a year of collecting 80 lbs of light sabers, orange peels and water bottles.
by Christina Hickman
At the beginning of this year, I resolved to really commit to something that I’d been doing on and off without real direction for years: make a concerted effort to pick up trash on hiking trails. And, by the end of 2019, I've picked up 80 pounds of it.
I picked up trash all over the state, from the grand and majestic places like Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks to places closer to (my) home, like Discovery Park in Seattle (where I picked up close to 50 pounds over the year). Sometimes I planned a hike for the sole purpose of cleaning up. Other times, I simply made more of a point to pay closer attention while hiking, collecting what I saw.
This year, it seemed like there was a growing awareness of removing trash on trail, due in no small part to the efforts of people like the outdoor queen herself, Pattie Gonia (this documentary she made with REI highlights the crisis on the beaches of Hawai'i) and groups like the Grounds Keepers (I was lucky enough to be a 2019 Grounds Keeper myself) who cumulatively picked up more than 5,000 pounds of trash across the United States this year. Even plogging, the Scandinavian tradition of picking up trash while trail running, gained steam on trails in the United States.
Here at WTA, encouraging hikers to leave trails better than we found them has always been part of our work to cultivate a community of responsible, trail smart hikers. As you look to make some resolutions for 2020 and beyond, consider giving it a try. Start by joining WTA in pledging to pick up trash on trail. Here's what I learned this year that might make it easier for you.
It’s okay to slow down
I’m used to hiking fairly quickly. But when you are picking up trash, you may have to go slow in order to even see the trash, and then once you do, you have to stop to grab it. This constant stop-and-go can take a little while to get used to, but once you do, you can expect your perspective to shift. Because once you start paying attention to little things like a wrapper corner on trail, you notice other things — beautiful things like the tiny curling ferns, drops of water clinging to a branch, the way the light dances on the forest floor — too.
You WILL be sore the next day
All the up and down to grab things off the ground will make you feel like you did 100 squats … because you probably did. Also carrying a bag of trash, even just a few pounds, will work out arm muscles you aren’t used to using while hiking. So even if you do a short hike, prepare for a full-body workout.
Picking up trash alone is meditative
Over the years, I have tried to entertain myself in a variety of ways while hiking solo. I've listened to music and podcasts and nothing at all. I often end up stuck in my own mind. But finding trash? It provided a sense of focus that proved not only useful for the act of actually picking up trash but in the sense of keeping my mind occupied. I had a singular purpose, and for me, that level of attention led to intention. The feeling it created can really only be described as walking meditation.
but it’s a lot more fun with your friends
If you’re competitive, it becomes a game. Going slower means you are more likely able to keep pace with each other and might create more of an opportunity to talk. When you're working as a team, one person might be more inclined to snag some hard-to-reach trash while another engages other hikers in a conversation about why you're carrying around a trash bag. And then at the end of the day, you can feel a shared sense of accomplishment (and soreness).
You will find some really weird things
Like a plastic light saber. A tire tube. Entire glass gallon bottles. A soccer ball. Brick-sized pieces of styrofoam. Need I go on?
But most of the time? It’s just a bunch of micro trash
I had some really big hauls, like the 30-pound day at Discovery Park in February and the 20-pound day at Rattlesnake Ledge in August. But on most of my hikes, my trash didn’t amount to that much weight. Why? Because it was a lot of micro trash. What is micro trash? Well it’s the tiny things we often don’t even mean to leave behind — that corner of a granola bar wrapper, a cover to a water bottle, scraps of orange peel — that add up over time and cause damage to the ecosystem and the animals who consume (or try to consume) them. So while most of my hikes didn’t result in huge pound totals, the overall number of individual pieces of trash quickly added up.
Practice safety first
There may be things on trail you want to pick up but shouldn’t. For me, I drew the line at pet and human waste. I didn’t feel comfortable picking up and properly disposing of dog poop bags. I usually didn’t pick up tissue paper on trail (and yes, I didn’t pack out the occasional diaper I spotted) or used bandaids. Since I spent a good deal of time in city parks, I did encounter hazardous items, like hypodermic needles, on several occasions. Know the limits of what you can and can’t pick up safely, especially when picking up trash with children. I sometimes did feel guilty simply walking by these items but ultimately you have to set and respect your limits. Also, if you don't feel comfortable or safe scrambling off trail, don't! That bottle is not worth a broken ankle.
Many people don’t understand who is responsible for cleaning up trails
Short answer: we all are.
Longer answer: Land managers and rangers are not responsible for picking up your trash along trails. Federal, state and local land managers are all strapped for funding, and they need that to fix trails and roads and maintain facilities. While some park rangers are responsible for trailhead clean up or trash removal, this is not the majority of their job nor is in their job to clean up the actual trails we hike.
The long and short of it is that it is no one’s job and everyone’s job. If you see a piece of trash, pick up it up. Other hikers will see you doing it, and may get inspired to do the same, to ask you questions and learn, or to take more care about not leaving trash behind.
While hiking, I constantly had people ask me if it was my job. They would say “do you work here?” I used it as an opportunity to let them know that I wasn’t working or getting paid, and that I was volunteering my time. I told them that there isn’t anyone in charge of cleaning up many of our public outdoor spaces. People were surprised to learn that, and many thanked me.
Lead by example
I encountered so many kind words on trail while toting around a trash bag. More “thank you”s and “great work”s than I can count or remember. But the things that stuck out the most to me were the interactions where people said to me, “I’ve been meaning to do that myself. Thanks for the reminder! I’ll bring a bag next time.”
One of my favorite encounters was when picking up trash on the Rattlesnake Ledge trail with my coworker, Grady. Being more than a foot taller than me, he is adept at spying things just off the side of the trail, and gracefully scrambling down to get them. In this case, so many plastic water bottles. We kept leapfrogging with a hiker also on his way down, who stopped and asked us what we were doing. He told us it was a great idea. He passed us and as we continued further down the trail, we encountered several water bottles in the middle of the trail. Soon enough, we caught up to our hiker friend as he was scrambling back up from the side of the trail. “Did you see the bottles?” Turns out, he started noticing all the trash just off trail and wanted to help out. He didn’t have any sort of bag himself, so we appreciated his help. Plus, it was clear his eyes were opened to something he literally hadn’t seen before. Hopefully next time he went out, he brought his own bag with him.
We can all make a difference!
Whether or not you are new to the concept of a trash hike or a seasoned veteran, give it a try! Get a group of friends together and turn it into a competition if that's your thing. Or just dedicate a bag and bring it with you on every hike. Tell your friends about it. Tell a stranger if they ask. Find something weird or interesting on trail? We'd love to see! More importantly, aim to be aware of your surroundings. Everyone wants to have a quality experience in the outdoors, and we all contribute to that.
Make sure to join our Trail Action Network for more ways to stay involved and take action.