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Ocean-choking, plastic garbage can sometimes be bitterly ironic

How Plogging Made Me a Better Runner (with several updates)

Personal best can mean more than a good time

My sea change began literally at the ocean’s edge. I often run at the beach and dislike seeing it fouled, be it by shitting dogs or thoughtless humans, including the guy who sometimes uses the shoreline as his personal driving range. Hard-packed sand is a great running surface and knowing that the silica crunching beneath my feet originated in the explosion of massive stars triggers a double dose of endorphins.

Over the years, I’ve noticed the gradual increase in plastic garbage washing up at the water’s edge, particularly after storms. And on occasion, I’ve collected some bottle caps or take-away containers and tossed them in the nearest recycling bin. This made me feel better, but Nature sighed. I continued to run outdoors as if the sand dunes and breaking waves were a movie set designed for my personal entertainment.

As time passed and reports of the giant plastic garbage patch in the mid-Pacific multiplied, my mood changed from alarmed to disgusted. I contributed to ocean cleanup fundraisers, bought recycled plastic bracelets from 4Ocean, and, when I could, opted to purchase glass bottles on grocery shelves.

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After-party debris at Ocean Beach in San Francisco

I worried, though, that if the governments of the world weren’t launching their navies to collect this shameful and foul monument to human waste, how could my pitiful efforts accomplish anything? Even if the streets and beaches were cleansed of rubbish, how could this waste be recycled given that recycled plastic was now being burned overseas, releasing cancer-causing dioxins in the bargain? And what about the world’s polluted rivers? Many serve as microplastic delivery systems for the already burdened oceans. Who was fixing that problem? In short, how could my disgust and rage matter other than to raise my blood pressure and wreck my work outs? Sadly, by learning more, I found I could only do less.

That’s when I heard about plogging, a term that approximates a Scandinavian word for picking up litter while running. It was a straightforward premise, more practical than spiritual and simple to do. Better yet, plogging wasn’t promoted as a panacea for pollution. Plastic packaging is, after all, an ongoing public menace, not just a one-time cleanup opportunity for a runner or two. I started slowly. Finding garbage to toss was easy. Finding recycling cans was not. I developed a system, choosing neighborhoods on their recycling days so that bins would be nearby. In just a few weeks, I was changed. Plogging became more than a feel-good minute. It quickly matured into a constant and unavoidable way of seeing the natural world and our responsibility for protecting it.

How could this be? Was running itself some sort of catalyst? Perhaps. Consider this. Runners spend countless hours thinking about their bodies. We are alive to the slightest twinge, the briefest pain, the tiniest change in our gut biome. We obsess about nutrition, running shoes, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, hamstrings, and glutes.

Yet for all this self-awareness, we can be blind to the larger space we inhabit as we dash through parks, over bridges, or into the woods. We seldom think of ourselves as part of what we see or apply the same careful attention to the ecosystem as we do our split times. Why? Because we are too busy trying to master all the elements that can slow us down.

Plogging forces us to stop, literally, take a look around, and apply to the outdoors that same careful attention runners lavish on themselves. As a consequence, we are torn from our reverie and tossed into reality. At that moment, some runners rebel. I did at first. Admittedly, the best runs are deeply meditative. You lose yourself, not in Nature, but in nothingness. Being oblivious is part of that equation. There’s no room to notice last night’s party leftovers strewn across the beach like a crime scene. And adding a litter bag and gloves to your gear is akin to tying weights around your ankles. No way.

Yet I came to realize that there is a huge cost to staying light on our feet and looking the other way. The best estimates are that only nine percent of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic discarded since 1950 has been recycled. This is not to mention the 300,000 pounds of plastic waste that finds its way into the ocean every nine minutes. Already stressed by an overheating planet, the oceans and the marine life they contain are being damaged beyond repair. We’re next. Put simply, no runners will be worrying about their next race when the planet has 50 percent less oxygen.

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At San Francisco’s Crissy Field, a whale made of repurposed, single-use plastic — courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium — reminds us of what’s at stake

It’s easy to shirk personal responsibility for this looming disaster. But once you’ve truly seen shore birds ingesting microplastic, despaired at the piles of plastic plates stacked up at sea walls, or realized that the bottle caps underfoot outnumber the sea shells, you’re permanently transformed. Plogging makes you a citizen runner, part of a self-appointed vanguard, who once mobilized against single-use plastics, can make running an environmental sport as much as a personal statement.

I’m now ready for that race.

Update:

I’ve been asked if the Ocean Beach photo is an anomaly because it was taken the morning of January 1 after a night of beach parties. I answer with a photo taken February 24, 2019. This is my haul on a less than one mile of beach and while comparatively light, speaks to the ongoing problem. And can someone please explain why there are suddenly so many clothes-dryer softener sheets in the beach waste-stream?

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Update 2 (August 2019)

There seems to be some slight improvement in the amount of plastic trash washing up on Ocean Beach in the summer of 2019. But the trashiness of the beachgoers continues unabated.

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Does it count if you get close to the trash bins, which to be fair, are sometimes overflowing?

My new pet peeve concerns nearby Golden Gate Park. Access to some of the recycling bins is limited by the size of the receptacle hole, which is too small to accommodate the large plastic bottles or containers that pepper the landscape. Even if recycling plastic is now considered pointless because of market forces, it’s impossible to even throw it away if the trash bin is locked. It’s enough to discourage even the most determined plogger. Still, I persist.

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Try to fit a large plastic container through this hole.
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This represents just one block’s-worth of plastic gathered from the gutter and sidewalk of my residential San Francisco neighborhood.

Update: February 25, 2020

As I go about my plogging business, bystanders sometimes ask why I bother. They remind me that plastic trash is all being buried or incinerated now anyway because the recyclable-material markets have largely crashed.

My response is two-fold.

I’m aware of the market forces, but there is a psychological force to consider as well. Litter is litter. It soils our streets and spoils the environment. Its buildup also stigmatizes us as careless and thoughtless, characteristics that will become habits if not consciously confronted. A careless and thoughtless person will become immune to the plastic threat and make it someone else’s problem to fix. I don’t want to be that kind of person.

Picking up plastic trash also forces you to confront how ubiquitous this material has become. Wrappers, boxes, containers, bags, straws, bottle caps, bottles, drinking cups, lids, syringes, dental floss, gloves, toys, and more pile up in devilish combinations across the landscape. Once you’ve run a mile carrying a clutch of such discards, you begin to shop differently and seek to learn more about the problem, the scientific research that holds such promise, and the organizations dedicated to reducing plastic pollution. That is the kind of person I choose to be.

Culture writer with an eye for history, science, sports, art, politics, photography, travel, and the original story between the lines.

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