Plogging for the Planet
Back when I was young and fast, I built my training program around my racing goals, and I ran an unhealthy proportion of my workouts much too quickly. These days my best hope in a race is an age group win, and I run for fitness and fun much more than trophies (and free shoes … which I do miss!).
I also spend much less time looking at my watch and thinking about my splits. In fact, often I stop dozens of times during a run, to pick up a PET bottle or a candy bar wrapper or – sign of the times – a paper face mask. I will – I hope – never be "a jogger" (no matter how slow and decrepit I get, I'll always be a runner!), but I have become "a plogger".
If you follow the global running scene, you have probably heard of plogging. While runners have always stopped on occasion to pick up bits of rubbish from along their running routes, in 2016 a Swede named Erik Ahlström "invented" plogging (plogga, in Swedish), which he named by combining the Swedish verbs plocka upp (pick up) and jogga (jog).
Ahlström set up a website to publicise the new "sport" and to provide a virtual meeting point for people who were interested in participating. Since then, millions of people have engaged in plogging, whether on their own or with friends or colleagues.
Although I have always tried to pick up rubbish while running on trails, I got my start as an active blogger when I lived in Japan, in a small beach town around an hour south of Tokyo. Japanese have a well-deserved reputation for cleanliness, but I can assure you, there was always plenty of rubbish washed up on the beach in front of my house, and at least once a week I collected one or more 45-litre bags of rubbish and plastic and broken glass.
My findings included thousands of PET bottles (a few from far-off lands including Vietnam, China and South Korea, but 99 percent Japanese), hundreds of empty fishing line packages, dozens of golf balls, a tennis racquet (stringless) a giant sea turtle (dead), a big skate (dead), a small shark (dead), a medium-sized octopus (dead), a boom box (non-functioning), and an artificial vagina (used). Recently on a trail in California, I picked up a discarded bag of dog poop, and unfortunately had to carry it to the top of the mountain and back down before I found a bin.
If you run regularly in East Coast Park you will remember that last year the government's rubbish collection services were suspended or reduced for significant periods. During this time, the beaches quickly filled up with plastic and other waste, washed in from the sea, and it was easy for me to fill up a large bag or two and feel as though I had not made much of an impact. [In 2015, environmental non-profit Ocean Conservancy reported that 55 to 60 percent of plastic waste in the oceans comes from just five countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.]
And yes, some may think rubbish collection "is not my job". The government contracts with rubbish collection services to keep our beaches and parks clean, but in some areas, the rubbish accumulates faster than the collectors can remove it. I could run past, thinking, "Someone who is getting paid will pick this up in a day or two," or I could stop, bend over, and pick up that PET bottle or candy wrapper or face mask and carry it to the nearest bin.
So I do that, and I think about the additional workout my core is getting as I bend and twist to pick up each candy bar wrapper. I glance admiringly at my biceps, which I’m sure are benefiting from carrying PET bottles to the nearest recycling bin.
I have no idea whether or not it’s true, but in an interview Erik Ahlström claimed that plogging burns 10 percent more calories than regular running. I put it in Strava as a “manual activity”.
Lots of people enjoy plogging as an organised group activity, but I just do it on my own. I stuff a bag down the back of my shorts, plus a glove (like Michael Jackson, I wear only one), and if I come across something icky, I slip on the glove, whip out the bag, bend and twist my core to grab the offending item, and pump my biceps until either I reach a rubbish bin or get back home.
If you like, you can also snap a selfie with your rubbish and post to Instagram with the hashtag #plogging!
[First published on RUN Singapore, October 2021]