So what exactly is plogging?
Plogging is a fitness trend that originated in Sweden (because of course) where people pick up litter while jogging. Erik Ahlström, an avid skier and trail runner, coined the term (originally plogga, as it is still known in other parts of the world). It’s a combination of “jogging” and “plocka upp,” which is Swedish for “pick up.” In English, the mashup conveniently aligns with the “p” and “l” in “pick up litter.” Despite what autocorrect tries to insist, it has nothing to do with blogging.
Ahlström dates his organized plogging to 2016, but the movement seemed to gather steam globally in 2018. Thanks to some media coverage of Ahlström’s organized events, plogging Instagram and Facebook accounts sprang up around the world.
It’s something many civic-minded walkers and outdoors enthusiasts had been doing for a long before it became a hashtag. The most famous is probably acclaimed humor writer David Sedaris, whose community named a garbage truck after him in 2014 for his roadside litter-picking habit — a side effect he said of trying to log more steps on his Fitbit.
Now the plogging movement has “reached all continents,” Ahlström told BuzzFeed News from New Zealand, where he was on a “plogging tour” to spread awareness and popularize the trend. (He acknowledged that maybe it hasn’t quite caught on in Antarctica...yet.)
Ultra runner Ripu Daman, 31, who said he was dubbed “India’s first plogger,” told BuzzFeed News, “I and some of my friends have been cleaning up for years but at an individual level and then decided to start a group called My City, My Responsibility. And when we saw this cool term for clean-up called plogging, we basically rebranded ourselves to Ploggers of India last year with a vision to make India a country of ploggers.”
The nice thing about plogging is that anyone can do it.
The #plogging and #plogga hashtags are used by all kinds of people who combine exercise with picking up trash, including runners, walkers, hikers, cyclists, and even paddleboarders — like Mari Laitinen, a 37-year-old Finnish event manager whose goofy poses with trash mimic swimsuit photo shoots.
The majority of plogging’s “early adopters” were ultra runners, like Ahlström and Daman, who run distances longer than marathons, usually on nature trails. Ahlström considers ploggers an “extension of the litter bin” in nature, where “no one is hired to pick up.” However, plogging is an activity for all age groups and abilities. “We try to encourage kids — they don’t expect it to be so fun,” Ahlström said. You don’t have to be a star athlete, he said, “to be good at plogging.”
And yes, you can get a good workout when plogging.
Plogging is an excellent way to improve your overall fitness. It could even burn 15% to 30% more calories than traditional running, although there’s no research to support that yet. That’s the “educated guess” of Brent Ruby, who directs the University of Montana’s Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism in Missoula, Montana. Ruby told BuzzFeed News that plogging may increase energy expenditure by introducing other movements besides running.
“Just the stooping over would change the overall energy expenditure a little bit,” Ruby said. “The activation of a wide range of non-running muscle movement patterns is really the benefit.”
“The idea of [plogging] is you’re stooping, bending, twisting, stopping, starting,” Ruby said. “You can’t even quantify how much more diverse muscle activity is involved.”
Plogging NYC’s Alex Bournery, who has organized plogging runs in all five New York City boroughs, told BuzzFeed News there might be an “isometric,” or muscle-building, benefit derived from carrying bags. They tend to get heavier during the workout if you aren’t immediately putting them in the nearest garbage bin, so you can even do some bicep and tricep curls with your bags of trash during your plogging workouts.
In fact, many ploggers, like Isabel Geldenhuys, incorporate squats and lunges while picking up trash. “We use the picking-up part to add some squats or stretching,” Geldenhuys, 48, a South African ultra runner, told BuzzFeed News, “and often I just do a lunge in the running stride” to pick up litter.
Alternating movements and incorporating squats and lunges “becomes really favorable for your core health,” Ruby said. In fact, he can envision training programs being created around plogging. “It’s a really amazing simple idea. Leave it up to the Swedes,” he said. “Almost all these unique running things” — like the interval training method known as fartlek (Swedish for “speed play”) — “happen from these areas of the world.”
The idea is to keep moving. Bournery reminds his New York City plogging group that they can’t pick up all the trash — “otherwise it isn’t plogging.” One of the hardest things for ploggers to do is leave trash on the ground, but if you stop to collect all the bits of plastic, food wrappers, and cigarette butts in one particular spot, you’ll no longer get a cardio workout.
And you can also choose to focus more on plogging while you are stretching or cooling down, rather than running. As Melbourne-based plogger Karin Traeger Hermosilla, 31, said, “There is no excuse [not to devote] 5 minutes of your cooldown to help a little.”
Here’s what you need to start plogging.
At the most basic level, all that ploggers need is their hands and a willingness to get dirty. Many ploggers, like Ahlström, pick up discarded bags — they’re literally everywhere — and fill them along the way; others use their hands and pockets or drop garbage in bins along their routes. One of the most famous plogging photos on Instagram shows a plogger with plastic bottles in her waistband.
Geldenhuys said she and her partner had always picked up trash when they ran in nature, but were inspired to do more after reading an article about plogging. “Initially we just ran in our local area and cleaned as we go and what we could carry,” she said. “Sometimes we’d pick up plastic bags and fill those. It grew from informally collecting rubbish to carrying bags, gloves, hand sanitizer, and now we run with a backpack for our water, to have our hands free to pick up rubbish.”
Mayokun Iyaomoler, “chief plogga” of Plogging Club OAU, an organized group at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, told BuzzFeed News that its members carry recycled waste bags and wear gloves and even face masks. Daman said his Delhi group brings “reusable non-plastic gloves” to their events, along with bags — “mostly gunny bags, which are reused.” And every plastic bag his group uses is “picked up from the road and park itself,” he said.
“Many people also say they are not willing to get dirty from other people’s trash,” Laitinen said. “But if you have a garden glove with you, it’s not dirty at all.”
And while it’s important to be careful, not all runners are keen on wearing gloves, especially when it’s warm. Some feel like picking up a discarded soda can on the running trail isn’t much different from grabbing a cold one from the market beverage aisle.
People who plog say it’s fun — and so is posting about it on social media.
Runners say plogging can feel good because you are doing something positive and it can make you feel like a kid again. Plogga founder Ahlström said that plogging may amplify the endorphin-fueled euphoria runners experience — popularly known as the “runner’s high.” “It becomes a treasure hunt,” he said. “You have fun — it becomes an addiction.”
Exercise physiologist Ruby compared plogging to 5K fun runs (like Thanksgiving turkey trots), which award T-shirts and medals to participants: “Ploggers’ medals are different. They don’t have just one finisher medal — they have a collection of bottle caps [and] are more excited about what they got.”
Indeed, sharing your spoils on social media is part of the fun. Ploggers use social media to connect and swap ideas with other ploggers, encourage newcomers, publicize plogging events, and promote the activity itself, often in artfully arranged Insta-friendly photos.
To many ploggers, Instagram pictures of their “loot” are as pretty as those posted by foodies and fashionistas. “I think about my pictures when I run, waiting for inspiration,” Geldenhuys said.
“With one simple image, you can tell a story,” Traeger Hermosilla said, “[and show] the general benefits of working together to protect what we love.”
Like others in 2018, Iyaomolere was inspired by a Facebook post about plogging. The university club he founded now has 110 members, and it relies on social media to publicize biweekly events and inspire — and draw inspiration from — others.
In fact, if you don’t like to plog alone, you can join a plogging group in nearly every big city around the world, from London to Vancouver and Seoul to Mexico City. They all do things a little differently, but they share a focus on fun and fitness.
At Traeger Hermosilla’s monthly plogs in Melbourne, “We start at a meeting point with a safety briefing according to weather conditions, chosen circuit, [and] rubbish handling,” she said. “After that, we form teams, and off we go for around 1–2 hours, meeting back at the starting point to sort out the collected rubbish, share our findings, and dispose of it in the right bins.”
Chief plogga Iyaomolere said the typical OAU plogging run lasts about two hours. “We jog and run, we walk, we pick litter, we collect plastic bottles separately. We dance a lot too. Many times we break into teams to make the exercise more competitive.”
Social media isn’t the only way people find out about plogging events: Many groups welcome new members during their runs. “Once they realize what’s going on, they just ask for a bag and gloves,” Traeger Hermosilla said. “And the reason is the same as for me: They cannot stand [with their arms crossed] without looking after the place where they enjoy nature.”
The most common items ploggers collect are cans and plastic bottles, bottle caps, snack and candy wrappers, fast food containers, cups, lids, straws, and cutlery.
They find some pretty weird stuff, too. The ploggers who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they have found clothes hangers, suitcases, and shoes; an exhaust pipe, car tires, and other car parts; TVs; and some things you can’t unsee (and definitely should not touch), like the “love nests” Traeger Hermosilla said her group has found — “with the related accessories hanging around” (ew!) and so much underwear that they “might do a calendar with the whole collection.” (We’ll stick with puppies, thanks.)
“We have limits,” Bournery said about his plogging group. “We don’t take diapers or syringes or weird stuff.”
It’s not all bad: Bournery has found money in New York (not much more than a buck or two, but still), and the odd pictures of currency show up in other ploggers’ Instagram posts. Unfortunately, ploggers aren’t “cleaning up” when it comes to cash. The most tangible reward of plogging, Geldenhuys said, is “when you look back and see the difference you made to a patch of earth.”
Most people appreciate ploggers.
You might see some puzzled expressions, but look at it this way: No one is going to complain that you are picking up trash. In fact, reaction from non-ploggers is overwhelmingly positive.
It was the positive reaction of other people during his first organized plogging run that convinced Ahlström he’d tapped into something special. “People around us were laughing and giving us high-fives,” he said.
Plogging does seem to be contagious. When she was traveling in Thailand, Laitinen said, “I started to clean a tiny beach in the island of Koh Kradan just before the sunset. Almost every single person there gradually joined me and it felt miraculous.”
“Often when we run, people honk at us and give us the thumbs-up,” Geldenhuys said about her plogging in South Africa. She appreciates it when people stop her to ask what she’s doing because it gives her a chance to educate others about “the plastic problem”: “A big part of the problem in my opinion is that most consumers are clueless," she said. "They don’t even think about the straw or the lid or the bottle they throw away.”
Just don’t get discouraged by the size of the problem.
“The idea is to not think about how big the problem is and get overwhelmed. ‘Small steps daily bring about big change’ is our philosophy,” Daman said.
Many ploggers are especially concerned about the environmental impact of plastic.
“We love nature,” Geldenhuys said, “and even though I know it is a small act, each piece we collect will not end up in the rivers and ocean.”
Traeger Hermosilla has seen the damage firsthand as a wildlife veterinarian and dive master at the Great Barrier Reef. “In almost every dive, I would collect some sort of marine litter (especially plastics), making me more aware of the awful impact these materials can have on our marine ecosystems and its wildlife,” she said.
Daman said that many first-time ploggers in India “are aghast” at the amount of plastic — and want to do more than just toss it in bins. “When we start plogging and see so much plastic, we raise awareness on the ill effects of plastic, especially single use, and ways to cut down its usage in our daily lives,” he said.
It’s the same for Geldenhuys in South Africa. “We are more aware of plastic and at home have upped our recycling game tremendously” — from composting and making ecobricks to working with charities that recycle plastic, like an owl rescue center that turns used plastic into owl houses and beehives.
“Once you start plogging, you will never stop,” Ahlström said. It changes people, he said, to “run with a purpose.” And it’s not just ploggers themselves, but their sphere of influence. Nothing is more gratifying to ploggers than to hear from family, friends, coworkers, and even passersby that their actions have inspired them to also pick up litter.
“With knowing comes caring; with caring comes changes,” Ahlström said.
“I know that picking up bottles in a park won’t fix the root of the problem, but I want to believe that through [plogging], we can [encourage] more sustainable living,” Traeger Hermosilla said. “It is so fascinating how simple things together can end up in something amazing.”
Thumbnail credit: Courtesy of @plastic_pollutionsolution