Recently, I read an inspirational and interesting article in one of my favourite mountain bike (MTB) magazines, CRANKED (see link at bottom of page). It was about an organisation called Trash Free Trails (TFT), who have set about the task in the UK of collecting and reducing the amount of trash on our trails. TFT is a non-profit organisation with goals and values that resonated with me immediately, but which I hadn’t really sat down to think about, until now.
The trails that TFT are cleaning up aren’t just used by MTBers either. They’re used by the serious outdoor walkers, the runners, maybe horse riders, the leisure walkers and the dog walkers. You’d think that all of these outdoor categories of people would never drop any trash, and if they did, they would pick it up. You would also think that if any of these groups did see any trash, they would pick it up, put it in their bag and dispose of it at home. However, evidence suggests that you would be wrong on both counts.
Countryside trash is an issue, but not on the scale that it might be in city areas with large populations. Countryside trash has some serious implications. Firstly, it can harm or kill wild and farm animals, and the statistics on this subject are alarming. Secondly, and apart from the fact that most of the trash won’t compost down into the ground, seeing anything like food packaging trash or empty cans in an area of outstanding beauty, is absolute sacrilege in my book.
The other thing is, the type of trash, or put another way, pollution that is found on the trails; like energy gel packets, confectionery wrappers, plastic bottles, lost equipment objects, and more recently, the disposable COVID mask. I can’t accept these being left on a trail or ignore them like I could a banana skin, apple core or maybe even a paper tissue, which will decompose quickly.
It all comes down to behaviour, pride and discipline. There is a well known and proven behavioural theory called the ‘Broken Windows Theory’. Under the Broken Windows theory, an orderly and clean environment, one that is maintained, sends a clear signal to people that the area is well cared for, monitored and crucially, that poor behavior is not tolerated. Conversely, a dis-ordered environment, one that is not cared for (broken windows, graffiti, excessive trash), sends the signal that the area is not monitored and that poor behavior has little risk of detection.
I think this is exactly the same principle that relates to what TFT are trying to do to drive cultural change on our trails. If a trail or some other place is in a perfect ‘no trash’ state, a very large majority of people will also endeavour to ensure that their own behaviour doesn’t compromise the surroundings. This means that people won’t drop trash, and if some is dropped by mistake, someone else will collect it and dispose of it. Simple huh?
I do remember stopping to pick up a muddy, chocolate bar wrapper once whilst on an MTB ride some years ago, and putting it in my pocket to dispose of it at home. This was because it was on one of my favourite rides in North Wales, UK, and which I wanted to keep perfect. I was proud to be able to ride the trail and wanted to protect it. This is an interesting insight into behaviour, because I’ve passed lots of litter at the side of the road whilst on a road bike ride and never stopped to pick it up, until now that is.
As my local North Yorkshire MTB trails were muddy-muddy-muddy, I recently took a winter road ride instead, and using the beautiful, small country roads. The air was fresh, the roads wet, and the route was a hilly one through the pretty lanes and villages. The area is rural countryside and farmed. These roads don’t have a lot of traffic on them and they are all separated from the fields and woods by hedges and walls. They mostly have a grass verge from the road side to the hedge or wall, and the grass verge is either managed (someone cuts it regularly) or is semi-wild (it is cut once a year). This part of the UK is designated an Area of Outstanding Beauty (or AONB if you collect acronyms), so it is a special place.
I was astounded with the level of trash that I passed and noticed on my bike, which was either on the grass verge or at the base of a hedge. Trash that that I wouldn’t have seen in a car, which is partly due to the obvious speed and visibility differences. I did not stop to collect any of the trash. However, I noticed two distinct patterns in the trash. Firstly, the type of trash, which were drinks cans, fast food, sweet wrappers and on one location, two bed pillows. Apart from these last two objects, the trash was all product packaging from the big global brands like Red Bull, Rockstar, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Costa Coffee and Cadbury, to name just a few. Secondly, there were localised trash dumps. This means that 5 or 6 objects of trash were in a small area, and probably, thrown out of a car window by the same person, and on some sort of commute or journey. In the pretty villages, there was zero trash, but between them on the small country roads was where the trash was/is to be found.
I’m sure that the CEOs or Heads of Marketing in the companies like the ones mentioned above would not wish to see this ‘trash advertising’ of their products in this way. Why? Because they are proud of their brands and products and are very likely to be using the word ‘sustainability’ in their business strategies and consumer marketing. Seeing a picture of some trash with their branding on it that had been consumed by an animal for example, and which led to its death, can take a lot of value out of marketing and sales.
After this alarming ride, I re-read the CRANKED TFT article, and whilst it focussed on trails, I decided to include the local countryside verges and hedges in MY scope. Simply put, I put the panniers on my old Dawes touring bike (now the sensible winter bike as it has mudguards, Lights etc), lined them with some old carrier bags and set out to clean up the very verges I witnessed on the first ride.
The ride took me a little longer than the first time and I only covered about a third of the distance, as I had to keep stopping to pick up trash, and the panniers filled up quickly. However, it’s a beautiful location in the world and I’m lucky to ride it. You’ll see from the picture below what I collected, and this is just from my side of the road. It could be said that the clearing of this trash is the responsibility of the local authority and paid for with our taxes. Whilst I think that local authorities are part of the solution, it’s more about how we can collectively change behaviour so that we don’t lose out to the ‘Broken Windows Theory’. This may require some thought and maybe some local enforcement and discipline of those that regularly trash the countryside.
FYI – I also found that riding a bike with bulging panniers got me some road respect and car drivers were very careful overtaking me. It’s a shame this doesn’t happen when I’m on an MTB or TT bike!
So what is the ‘so what?’ I hear you think. Well, you can start applying The Broken Windows theory to your own trails, rides, and perfect worlds. Take a trash bag out with you to put trash in on your ride or walk. Report trash issues to your local authorities. Why not check out TFT by clicking on their logo on the right side of this page, make a donation and apply the principles of what both they and I’m talking about, to your part of the world. I’ll definitely be keeping my trails trash and pollution free when I’m out there, and keeping an eye on those roadside verges too.
If you are in a cycling club or group, you can have some fun with a Trash-picking-chain-gang-ride. As the front rider in the group stops to pick up some trash, the others keep riding and the trash picker then has to get on the back of the group again. As every rider will be on the front, back and middle of the group, it’s a fun way to ride and it works on or off-road, and don’t lose trail respect for others whilst your doing it off-road please.
If you’re reading this and work for a big-brand business, get on this trash free bus now and take your share of the driving as well. Big businesses have power, influence and resources, so what better way to utilise them to emphasise and change our trash culture.
Doing nothing is NOT doing something in my book, so we should all take more pride in where we all live, and help drive a sustainable culture. I would be really pleased to hear about what you’re doing to ensure that our riding worlds don’t get Absolutely Trashed!
You can find out about CRANKED Magazine here https://www.cranked.cc/
All Photos by the Author