Plogging: small steps, global change
Story: Marie Knowles/Amelia Darby|
Photos: Tom Powell
April 19, 2019
When Erik Ahlström moved back to Stockholm after 20 years, he discovered how dirty Sweden had become, and he was ashamed. Litter was a big, overwhelming problem. So he took a small step to solve it - he picked up some litter. From these early days of plogging – a word that combines ‘jogging’ and ‘plocka’, the Swedish word for ‘pick’ – the craze spread to become a global movement. We caught up with Erik at a plogging event to see what it’s all about.
What exactly is plogging and why do people do it?
Plogging is going for a run and picking up garbage. People are not made for sitting down. We have to move. Everybody knows we’re eating too much, we’re becoming overweight, and that leads to disease. So we have to get the grown-ups and the kids moving, and this is a fun way to do that. It’s running but running with a purpose.
How did your plogging journey begin?
I was living in Åre, a small ski resort in Sweden of 1,500 people. I was picking up garbage myself and organizing people on different kinds of garbage walks. Then I moved down to Stockholm city. I hadn’t lived there for 20 years and I noticed there was so much garbage on the streets, and people weren’t really paying attention to it. The garbage was laying there for weeks, months and no-one was picking it up. I felt ashamed that Sweden was so dirty and I thought that I would like to clean the place up. I’m a trail runner and am connected to a lot of people in the trail running community. When those people started running with me, and picking up garbage, I noticed something was sparkling in their eyes. It was… like a treasure hunt, but for garbage. Since then I’ve found that once people start plogging, they can’t stop.
How did plogging grow into a global movement?
People see you picking up litter and they want to do it too. They know that litter is bad and they can see that we’re doing something about it in a fun way. And it all has a knock-on effect. A lot of people are angry and upset because littering is becoming such a big problem. Now, people around the world are talking about plogging – across at least 100 different countries, on all continents. It’s a big craze. We have about 10,000 people in India that are plogging more or less every week. We have a world record in Mexico City, of 4,200 people plogging on a single day.
What needs to change to stop people dropping litter in the first place?
With knowing, comes caring. With caring, comes changes. For instance, one cigarette butt takes about five years to disappear, a plastic bottle takes 450 years before it disappears…but it never really disappears, it just breaks down into micro-plastic. Micro-plastics are ending up in the ocean and being eaten by fish – fish that we eat. And plastic off all different types is directly killing wildlife. When I started, it was a bit of a revelation to me. I’m not really an environmentalist, I’m just an ordinary guy. But when I started reading the reports and thinking, wow, it takes 450 years before a PET bottle disappears… If everyone knew that, they wouldn’t throw bottles away as litter. There are also social considerations. Litter and disrepair affect people socially too – people don’t respect a dirty environment and it tends to distance people from each other. But studies have shown that people interact more in a clean environment and they respect their surroundings and each other. It’s about knowing what the problem is, so you can make changes.
Was there a particular moment when you realized people were really behind you on this journey?
One specific memory was when we were plogging in Auckland, New Zealand, and we were passing this guy who was selling strawberries. He says, “Stop, stop, stop – what are you doing?” We told him we were plogging, and he was so impressed, he gave us four boxes of strawberries. That sort of thing happens all the time. There are so many people who are concerned and upset. Everybody would like to help make a change.