When I was around 12 years old, I went on a beach holiday with my family.
At the beach, my younger sister, father and I immediately started digging trenches and building sandcastles. But, when I walked to the ocean to fetch a pail of water (you need lots of water to build a sturdy sandcastle) I was flummoxed by the amount of plastic waste floating around.
So, I dumped the pail, grabbed my sister and our toy fishing nets, and began scooping up rubbish instead.
Wondering where we got off to, our father searched for us, and found his daughters waist deep in water, diligently scooping up plastic. When I asked him to join us, he scoffed: “Look at all the rubbish floating around. You can’t possibly pick everything up by yourselves.”
It was true – there was practically a floating island of rubbish, probably 20 times my size, in front of us.
Discouraged, my sister and I terminated our efforts and went back to building sandcastles.
Now, a decade later, I’m picking up rubbish again. Every Asian parent’s worst nightmare, right?
This time, I’m not at the beach, though. I’m jogging around Nathan Road with the women behind Secondsguru, a young social enterprise that promotes environmental education and awareness.
And this time, no-one is here to discourage me and point out that I can’t make a difference. In fact, the other members in my group are diligently squatting and picking up pieces of trash with me.
This time, I am plogging.
What is plogging?
The latest fitness craze – the act of picking up trash while jogging – started as an organised activity in Sweden around 2016, and spread to other countries in 2018.
Dubbed “plogging” – a portmanteau of the English word “jogging” and the Swedish words “plocka upp”, meaning “pick up”, this fitness trend lets enthusiasts get fit while doing good.
And according to the Swedish fitness app Lifesum, which in February made it possible for users to track plogging activity, a half-hour of jogging plus picking up trash will burn 288 calories for the average person, compared with 235 for just jogging. A brisk walk will expend about 120 calories.
Ex-bankers and close friends Lara Rath Behura and Anuja Byotra Aggarwal, who co-founded Secondsguru almost four years ago, embraced plogging wholeheartedly in April this year, and go at least once a week. Not only does it help the environment, plogging also helps the two women, who are busy mothers in their 40s, keep fit.
We jogged – OK, walked for a lot of the time – for around half an hour, and picked up four bags of trash, including one of recyclables, such as plastic bottles.
I’ll admit that when the plogging session started, I looked around and was worried that there wouldn’t be enough pieces of rubbish for the three of us to pick up.
But, the keen-eyed Lara quickly brought my attention to a bottlecap right next to my feet, a piece of plastic a metre to my right, and a bright yellow and orange plastic bottle two metres to my right.
“There are 56,000 registered cleaners in Singapore who sweep up litter and leaves daily,” pointed out Lara. “All the trash we’re seeing is probably the stuff they’ve missed, or so old it’s ‘part’ of its surroundings now.”
Once my eyes adjusted and I knew what to look out for – flashes of white for cigarette butts, an iridescent shine for anything plastic – I was overwhelmed by the amount of rubbish. One thing I noticed is that, while sidewalks are generally clear of trash, grass patches and the area around trees are much dirtier than one would have thought.
In fact, for several portions of our walk, I didn’t need to squat, stand up and squat again. I simply stayed in a squat position and waddled over to the next piece of rubbish.
Plogging may be gross, but we should do it anyway
These were some of the highlights of my plogging session. Those who are squeamish, or dislike dirt and mess, should probably skip to the end of the article.
First, a cardboard drink container that was practically a part of the soil. Anuja had to yank it out of the ground. It really made me wonder how long the container had been there for.
Next, a piece of plastic that was so entangled with a plant’s roots, I couldn’t remove it without ripping up the plant’s roots. I felt really bad for the plant… I was trying to help the environment, not destroy it further!
Finally, cups with remnants of food in them! I picked up a murky, upside down plastic cup only to find an entire, mouldy, decomposing lemon in it. I’m still shuddering as I type this.
But, in my opinion, the worst type of trash, by far, were cigarette butts. They weren’t the most disgusting to pick up, but they were absolutely everywhere. Butts severely outnumbered every other category of rubbish, and, because they are so small, they were the most annoying to pick up or dig out of the dirt.
I won’t deny that picking up old, wet and mouldy trash isn’t gross. It is gross. But it would help the environment if we got over that.
“When we started plogging, we were definitely more reticent about the sort of rubbish we picked,” Anuja shares. “Initially, I refused to pick cigarette butts. But over time – and after plogging with my kids who aren’t grossed out so easily – I found my queasiness left me.”
Agreeing, Lara adds: “Don’t focus on it as doing something ‘gross’. The idea is to participate in a civic awareness movement – clear up to the extent and way that you are comfortable. Carry gloves if you prefer. In time, we hope people would not be needing to clear up after each other’s trash!”
But, in addition to doing good for the environment, there are other benefits to plogging. “As anyone who has plogged will admit, you get a fair bit of exercise from jogging, as well as bending down on your knees to pick up the litter- works the core and the glutes!” Lara laughs.
Don’t make plogging a special occasion; cultivate a lifestyle of ‘pick up as you go’ instead
Many others who plog bring along tongs or a pair of gloves to pick up the soggy and, I’ll admit, at-times odiferous pieces of rubbish with. Interestingly, Lara and Anuja don’t.
“We hope to cultivate and promote a lifestyle of ‘pick up as you go’,” Lara explains. “If we make plogging a ‘special activity’ that only happens when you bring along gloves or tongs – none of which are items a Singaporean would randomly carry around with them – it makes plogging more of an anomaly, rather than a regular occurrence.”
Anuja adds: “The same way someone who litters may be doing it mindlessly – just opening a bottle, throwing the cap aside, and continuing their walk, for example – we hope to cultivate a lifestyle where picking up rubbish as you go comes naturally.
“Plastic and trash themselves aren’t the problem,” Lara adds. “It’s our attitudes – that plastic is disposable, or that we can just throw rubbish somewhere and it’ll disappear. Until we give up our addiction to convenience and say ‘no’ to single-use plastic, not much will change.
“If we keep doing things with just our convenience as our compass – such as using disposables mindlessly and littering impulsively – the environment will continue to suffer,” Anuja says. “Plogging helps direct our eyes and senses to this problem – that we create a lot of trash as a society and we aren’t disposing of it as well as we should.”
Indeed, the environment is everyone’s business, says Anuja.
“We need to be responsible for it.”