Litter Pickle: Bristol school teacher keeps surroundings litter-free by running

Litter Pickle: Bristol school teacher keeps surroundings litter-free by running

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When it comes to littering, statistics collected from the world over reflect the social decay of urban spaces and the callous attitude adopted by citizens globally. Among developed nations, the United Kingdom has earned the unenviable title of being the country with the most severe littering problem - almost 62 per cent of its citizens admitted to discarding garbage in a disorderly manner, and each year about 30 million tonnes of litter is collected from its streets.

Littering – the majority of it comprising fast food packaging and cigarette butts – not only erodes the visual appeal of cities, spreads illnesses, pollutes our marine ecology but also places an immense burden on a country's coffers. America alone spends a staggering 11.5 billion dollars to clean up litter. Fiji, on the other hand, has created groups of Litter Prevention Officers to combat the problem by boosting limited garbage handling resources. 

However, despite various policies implemented by governments, transformation can only occur when concerned and conscientious citizens make a concerted effort to shrug off lethargy and disillusionment and help initiate change at an individual level. The ever-growing mounds of litter are often ignored by citizens, leaving the responsibility of cleaning them to their respective councils. But, Bristol-based primary school teacher, Polly Emmott refuses to look the other way.    

The 29-year-old took to running two years ago and was disturbed by the amount of litter she encountered on her runs. Irritated by the apathy of the council and other citizens, Polly decided to use running as a means to step out and clean her neighbourhood by picking litter with the help of a litter picker, a pair of gloves, and garbage bags. To create awareness about the repercussions of littering and to encourage others, Polly documents her experiences as a litter picker on her popular Instagram page - Litter Pickle.

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In conversation with TAL, the changemaker speaks about the motivation behind her endeavours, creating conversations around littering, and the changes she has incorporated in her life to reduce waste generation. 

What prompted you to get your hands dirty - quite literally- and start picking other people’s garbage? And what is the story behind the interesting moniker Litter Pickle? 

I took up running about two years ago – doing short loops every other day around the area where I lived. One day, I noticed a Lucozade bottle discarded on a corner. The bottled stayed there for a couple of weeks, and the more I encountered it on my runs, the more annoyed I got. I thought by this time someone should have picked it up and thrown it in a bin. By my seventh run in the same area, I lost my cool! I picked up the bottle and shoved it in the nearest litter bin. It was my ‘a-ha’ moment, and I realised that I should initiate change instead of waiting for others to do so.  

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The name Litter Pickle came naturally to me. Growing up my parents’ nickname for me was Pickle. When I thought of the term ‘Litter Picker’ it just sounded so much like ‘Pickle’ that I couldn’t resist.

Do you pick litter every day, and for how long you have been doing this? On an average how much litter do you manage to collect, and how do you discard them? 

Every litter picked – even a small plastic bottle, in my opinion, makes a difference. So, I try to pick litter off the streets every day. I have been doing this for about a year and a half, and have been documenting my efforts on Instagram to create more awareness and encourage other environmentally conscious people to do the same.  

My resolution for this year is to keep track of how much litter I pick by weighing my bags because presently I have no idea how much I pick up on average!

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If I am doing a spontaneous pickup, then I use public litter bins, though this isn’t ideal as the litter from these bins is burned for energy, not recycled. I aim to recycle everything I can, so public recycling bins are essential. Otherwise, I will often bring pickings home with me to recycle in my own bins.

Before embarking on this project, did you contact your local council to help you out? Did they help with the purchasing of litter picking equipment?     

I do this entirely on my own, and over time have invested my own money into purchasing equipment such as litter pick sticks and gloves. 

Have you had others – motivated and encouraged by your work- spontaneously join you while you are out picking litter? Or, have you had people dismissing your efforts?

 Some weeks ago, while cleaning a beach with some friends of mine, a little girl approached us and said “Here you go!” and gave us an empty packet of chips she had picked up. That was a fantastic moment and made me realise the impact my actions were having on others.

While not many people have enthusiastically joined in my litter picking activities, I am frequently stopped in public by those who are curious and want to know more about what I am doing.

I like to think that those conversations I have with strangers ignite in them the urge to make the world a cleaner place. Two of my oldest and closest friends are now frequent litter pickers and were supportive of my actions from the initial days.    

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Very rarely have I come across a negative or dismissive comment. However, some have questioned the need for me to do this, pointing out that it is primarily the responsibility of the council to keep the area clean. While that is true, in my conversations with the council’s garbage coordinators, I have found out how overwhelmed they are with the current situation. It is just not manageable to keep up with the massive amount of littering that happens daily. If we can normalise picking up a piece of litter whenever we see them, we can stop our towns and cities from drowning in garbage. 

How has your family reacted to your litter picking activities? Were they bemused or encouraging?

My family is very encouraging of what I do! My 5-year-old niece actually became interested in litter picking before she knew what I had been doing, so there must be something in the genes! For Christmas I bought her a matching litter picker to mine, and now we go out litter picking together – she is very inspiring!

What are the nastiest, and common things you encounter in your litter picking outings?  

It’s a tough competition for nastiest - finding a carrot in a condom, numerous bottles of urine, a bag of dirty (adult sized) pants hanging in a bush and a coffee cup filled with vomit. The most common items that I find are energy drink cans, cigarette butts and various packets and food waste from McDonald's.

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In spite of having regular garbage pickups, and numerous bins, why do you think people still litter their surroundings?

I think about this often. I feel some of the litter that I find are often those that have blown/fallen out of bins. And, some I believe, are results of careless mistakes – dropped gloves, etc.

Having said that I think the primary reason for littering is immaturity – that it is somehow hilarious to chuck, dump things. I feel the litter we find around parks, or other places are discarded by youngsters who want to impress each other by being outlandish.

The other reason is naivety – believing that if you carefully place rubbish on a wall, it will somehow find its way to the bin, or disappear into thin air!

The third reason I can think of is selfishness - that once you are finished with a product, you are no longer responsible for it, or want to be burdened by carrying it to the bin. That it is someone else’s job to clean up after you because you are too busy or important. This is most common when it comes to rubbish being thrown out of cars. We should ask ourselves this; is anything that urgent that it needs to be removed from the car right that minute? 

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How do you think fast food joints, local shopping centres, and grocery shops can help in reducing the amount of waste generated?

Stop buying disposables or single-use plastics. If we keep buying them, commercial establishments will keep making them, and since they are given to us so frequently and easily, we often forget that they are not easy to eliminate. Many of the disposables will outlive even the brand that they have been made for!

I have pondered many times how to encourage people to decrease their use of single-use products, but sadly the only thing that seems to work is charges. It is important that products are still accessible to all, but we urgently need to rethink our consumption patterns.

Since starting Litter Pickle, what are the changes you have brought in your life to reduce waste? 

I have tried to incorporate numerous changes like opting for non-disposable razors, shampoo bars, and refilling products like pasta at zero waste shops, among others. There’s a school of thought that believes going waste-free can be expensive. I have had quite the opposite experience. Buying fruits and vegetables from local grocers plastic free has been less costly than buying from supermarkets. 

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I avoid disposables, and have made ‘go bags’ to grab when I head into town – these contain some Tupperware, metal travel cutlery, my reusable coffee cup, a cloth napkin, metal straw and extra canvas bags. It takes up about as much room as a book and saves me from picking up lots of disposables.

Recently, a supposedly eco-friendly T-shirt company wanted to collaborate with you, but when you asked them questions about how they source their materials, they backtracked. How important is it for you to only consume products that are ethically sourced, leaving behind no or less carbon footprint? And, do you think in a globalised world that is possible? 

It is undoubtedly challenging to live wholly impact-free and ethical in modern society, but I don’t think that that is a good enough reason not to try. My issue with companies that say they are eco-conscious is that they are taking advantage of the present-day trend of people trying to veer towards ethically sourced products and sustainable living.     

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It’s an admirable change to try to make in your life, so when companies - like the one that approached me - just stick a message like ‘Save the Bees’ on a sweatshop made, plastic filled t-shirt, they are appealing to our ego and encouraging us to ignore our values. It makes it harder to tell ethical companies from cheap moneymakers, and it adds to the ‘fast-fashion’ disaster that is currently strangling our planet and keeping people enslaved.

What advice would you give to those who would like to follow in your footsteps but are probably hesitant to pick up other's waste, or to those who would want to reduce their waste generation? 

For those who want to pick up litter – don’t wait! As long as you have a good pair of gloves (gardening gloves work very well), you are ready to start picking up rubbish. You will feel great from getting outside, being active, making a difference to the planet, and getting accolades from others. 

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Reducing waste is harder because it can be tempting to try and do it all at once. Small, manageable steps are critical to making progress – try just keeping hold of that last plastic bottle you bought and reusing it for a week. I promise it is easier than you think.

Connect with Polly on Instagram.

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