If you follow me on Instagram, you may know that I gave myself a goal to get outside every day starting November 1st and ending in the spring (starting time varies here in MN). Last winter I really struggled with my mental health throughout the season, and it only got worse as the winter dragged on and on until May. I really want to try and stay proactive about my mental health this year, hence the challenge. I’m using the hashtag #optoutsideformentalhealth if you want to follow along.
As I started my challenge (especially before the snow fell), I became quite aware of the amount of litter that ‘appeared’ on my daily routes – even in places that I had picked up the day prior. I decided that as part of my daily challenge, I would also just plan ahead to pick up any little I find along the way.
You may have heard of hygge (pronounced hoo-gah), the Danish word meaning ‘cozy’ as it sweeps North America. Now, it’s time to welcome another overseas craze that North Americans are quickly adopting: plogging.
What, exactly, is plogging?
What if I told you it’s an activity that provides tons of mental and physical benefits, while also being beneficial to the planet?
In a nutshell, which I’ll expand on below, the definition of plogging is running and picking up trash. But it doesn’t just have to be running, it can be picking up trash while walking as well.
Let’s dive deeper into the meaning of plogging.
What is plogging and how does it work?
According to one source, “The word plogging comes from jogging and “plocka upp,” the Swedish word for ‘pick-up’. The activity involves individuals or groups of joggers with trash bags picking up pieces of garbage as they run, and since plogging involves running as well as squats, it can potentially provide a more intense workout.” I also find myself getting a little stretch in as I bend over to pick up especially stubborn pieces!
Tip: You do NOT have to be a runner to plog. The plogger meaning itself specifies jogging and picking up trash, but I often walk instead!
To get started, grab your workout gear (whatever that looks like) and your litter-pick-up materials, and hit your favorite trail or city-route. Be prepared to feel good physically and mentally, and make a difference in your local community.
Besides the benefit of exercising and being out in nature (both big mental health boosters and which I’ll get into more below), running along a trail or sidewalk provides a great opportunity to pick up trash along the way.
So often when we see litter, we may cringe, curse, or feel sad. But, instead of picking it up, we continue walking right on by it – leaving it in place. I have read stories from people who were ‘thanked’ for picking up litter, by people who were walking right by litter. Really?!
Litter puts animals and bodies of water at risk of contamination, not to mention it’s an eye-sore. Additionally, according to one source, litter costs us as taxpayers $11 BILLION a year. The source goes on to say that this number is extremely conservative, because it doesn’t count for “indirect costs such as decreased property values, decreased commerce and tourism in blighted areas, and the health effects and related costs of littered environments.” I would even add environmental health costs (clogged water ways lead to flooding, etc).
Why don’t we just pick it up?
Maybe it’s the mentality that ‘someone else will pick it up’, or the fear of touching the litter because it is ‘dirty’ that prevents us from taking action. Going back to the source mentioned above, it states that behavioral studies found that litter begets litter. The number of trash receptacles within proximity also played a role. In other words, we’re lazy. Yep – I went there.
Back to plogging – by setting out with the purpose of not only exercising but also prepared to pick up trash via plogging, it ensures that the trash actually gets picked up!
What do you need to plog?
One of the great things about plogging is that you don’t need a lot of things to do it (perfectly low waste, clutter free, and budget friendly).
Here are a few things I find necessary:
Route: Obviously, you need to find a route! This could be around your neighborhood, hiking in the woods, or running on a track outside.
Gloves: Depending your preferences, you may want to bring gloves. Since I started actively plogging after it got cold where I live in Minnesota, I was always wearing gloves. When my son and I would go out on a walk, we would bring a small plastic doggy bag we had purchased when we had a dog, and turn it inside out to pick up the trash. We would reuse the same small bag many times.
Small bag: Speaking of a bag, depending on where you are plogging, you may want to bring a small bag for the trash. My regular routes all have trash cans along the route, but often if I’m hiking at a state park or elsewhere in the woods, I always make sure to have a small bag.
Tip: You may have to carry trash for a short distance. It may be inconvenient. But litter itself is inconvenient.
How can you get involved?
The great thing about being a plogger (whether you’re walking or jogging) is that you can start at any time! You can do it on your own, or grab a group of friends/family to join you.
However, if you want to join a bigger movement, you’re in luck.
Here are a few that I found:
#pickup5: encourages people to pick up just 5 pieces of litter, and use the hashtag #pickup5 on social media to encourage others to pick up their own five pieces!
Plogging petition: There is a petition on Change.org to make ‘plogging’ an official sport of the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, USA.
Instagram ploggers: This post contains a list of ploggers you can follow on Instagram for inspiration and encouragement.
- Look locally: Check with local community ed offerings, Meetup (a site to find local groups in a wide range of topics), or by using local community Facebook groups to see if there are already plogging groups in your area. Even a Google/Ecosia search of ‘ploggers near me’ may bring up some results.
- Start your own: Can’t find a local group already in existence? Grab a group of ploggers and start a group in your local community!
Does plogging just involve running?
No! I mentioned it above, but felt it was important enough to highlight again.
Being a plogger does not just mean people jogging. You can walk as well!
Can I plog with kids?
Absolutely! Plogging is a perfect fitness trend that involves kids. I bring my son often on my walks and we pick up trash together. We sometimes make it a game where we are litter detectives or super heroes and are out to save the animals!
It’s also a great way to start conversations about trash, litter, and conservation. If you’re looking for other kid-friendly ways to start conversations around earth, the climate crisis, and other environmental issues, check out my list of shows, documentaries, and movies for young kids.
In my area, 99% of the items I find are single-use plastic items. As we are working to reduce our waste, it is an easy segway for me to talk with my son about why we bring our own water bottles instead of using plastic water bottles, for example.
Benefits of plogging
As you may have guessed, there are a lot of benefits to plogging!
Let’s go into more detail about many of the benefits below.
Exercise: Obviously, exercise is beneficial to our health. Whether you’re running or walking, moving your body each day has ample benefits including being happier, reducing risk of diseases, increased energy levels, better sleep, and more.
Connection to local community: There aren’t many better ways to connect to your local community than to get outside in it everyday! Saying hi to a neighbor or discovering something new you always miss driving by are just two small examples. This will be even more pronounced if you join a local community group or start your own.
Opportunity to explore: Is there a state park you’ve always wanted to check out but never have the time? Plogging is a great way to explore new areas either in your local community or a little farther out.
Cleans up waterways: One local park near me was flooded all year this year. As the water finally started to retreat in October, the amount of litter that remained on the trails was insane. It was even more disheartening when I realized that I saw used to be in the water.
In this same park, there is a muskrat den in one of the wetland areas. It breaks my heart every time I walk by because there is a plastic bag embedded into the den.
Litter is detrimental to bodies of water as most never goes away. Litter can clog water pipes, thus increasing flooding, food and other organic matter can break down and change the chemistry of the water, thus throwing off natural cycles and balances, and animals can eat it and get sick or die.
Prevents animals from eating it: Speaking of…we’ve all seen those horrible photos of birds, fish, and most recently, whales with their stomachs cut open and full of plastic and other trash. Animals have a hard time determining whether something is litter or not, and often will eat it.
Additionally, we’ve all seen or heard about animals that get stuck in plastic materials – whatever they may be.
Finally, litter that ends up on roads can result in animals getting hit by cars.
Litter is harmful to our wildlife. End of story.
Time spent with family/friends: Plogging is a great way to spend quality time with family and friends, in nature, in your community or exploring somewhere new! A great way to slow down and embrace time together – something I know my family and I value!
Inspire others to adopt more low waste swaps: As you start plogging, you may naturally feel inclined to share your experience and/or little photos on social media, or through everyday conversations. As I mentioned above, 99% of the litter I find are single-use plastic items. I share my litter finds on social media, highlighting the fact that the pieces are in fact, single-use plastic items. I could take it a step further and offer alternatives, and hopefully inspire people to make easy swaps to their every day life.
Related post: Plastic Is Not The Enemy. Our Mindset Is.
New perspective: Seeing and picking up litter every day certainly has given me a new perspective on just how much ‘waste’ is out there. You know the saying, “there is no away”. When we throw something in the trash, it’s out of site and out of mind. Unless you’re actively out there picking it up.
It has made me even more aware that I should keep going with my low/zero waste actions at home and beyond into my community.
Exposure to nature: Being out in nature has a TON of benefits which I’ll detail below. But I had to list it as a benefit, because, well, it is!
Eco-anxiety: Eco-anxiety has been listed by the American Psychological Association as an official mental illness. I say that because I want you to know that if you’re dealing with it, you’re definitely not alone.
I’ve written an extensive post on eco-anxiety, talked about it on an episode of ‘The Sustainable Minimalist’ podcast (see ‘related post’ below), and experience it almost daily. One of the things that has helped me manage it is action. Although a small action, picking up litter does make me feel like I’m doing something, and it’s something that doesn’t take much time or have any cost, and it helps alleviate a little bit of my eco-anxiety.
Related post: Eco Anxiety and Guilt: The What and The How (to Manage)
How plogging helps anxiety
I’ve talked a lot about how being a plogger and plogging itself can benefit the planet. I’ve touched on ways it can help with anxiety and our mental health overall, but here is where I really dig down into the details.
Let’s dive in.
Exercise and mental health
Regular movement is a GREAT way to support positive mental health. Research shows that “exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function”. It also helps sleep quality, which in turn supports positive mental health. If you’ve ever had a bad night of sleep (or two), you know how much of a funk it can leave you in the following day.
Again, this doesn’t have to be training for a marathon. Even just getting outside and walking, gardening, or other activities (hi, plogging) absolutely count!
Have you ever heard of forest bathing? It’s a trend that started in Japan that highlights the benefits of being out in nature for our health. And it’s super easy. All it involves is you getting outside into nature!
According to one site, “[forest bathing] is proven to reduce stress hormone production, improve feelings of happiness and free up creativity, as well as lower heart rate and blood pressure, boost the immune system and accelerate recovery from illness.”
Scientists think that nature has such beneficial and healing properties because of back in the day (you know, way back), when we lived outside, we were consistently in nature. During times of stress – like being chased by a bear – nature would be around (or we’d be around in it) to calm us back down.
Forest bathing is a whole topic all on it’s own. However, if you take the benefits of exercising, and take the benefits of being out in nature, you’ve got a giant source of beneficial things going on for your physical and mental health – including anxiety and other mental illnesses.
If you’re interested in learning more about forest bathing, I would recommend the following books:
The Nature Fix
The Hidden Life of Trees
Forest Bathing: Discovering Health and Happiness Through the Japanese Practice of Shinrin Yoku
Nature and mental health
I’ve already talked a little bit about this, but let’s take a closer look.
There is something called ‘eco-therapy’, which is a growing field that looks at how beneficial nature is to our mental health. Scientists believe that nature helps lower our stress hormones and reduces the effects of the fight or flight response (unless of course you actually need it) which is often continuously heightened in our day and age.
The body’s fight or flight response is a big part of what causes anxiety, so anything that can help neutralize that during times that it’s not needed is beneficial.
Taking action in times of a climate emergency
As I mentioned earlier, eco-anxiety is a real thing and can manifest like any other anxiety disorder/mental illness. Taking action is one way that I’ve found helpful in managing that anxiety. Plogging is a way to take action. Plus, as we talked about earlier, exercising helps alleviate anxiety.
Tip: If your eco-anxiety/guilt/depression or any other type of mental illness is starting to affect your daily life, please get support. Here are some helpful resources.
Want to learn how to adopt a reduction based lifestyle (through mindfulness, minimalism, anxiety management, and zero waste living but not sure where to start?