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A New Litter Challenge to Promote Sustainability

October 3rd, 2019
James Tehrani
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This post was updated Nov. 13, 2019, with current collection totals.

In August, Sphera celebrated its third-annual Sustainability Day.

As I wrote at the time, I really enjoyed the beach and park cleanup that the Chicago office participated in as part of an Alliance for the Great Lakes initiative. In my blog post about the event, I wrote: “What if we all took the time to pick up just one piece of litter a day? Imagine how much cleaner the world could be and how that might contribute to a much more sustainable future. Just imagine.”

It was meant to be a philosophical riff designed to inspire people to take sustainability more seriously.

What I didn’t expect is that it would inspire me, too.

I mulled that sentence I wrote quite a bit, and then, on Sept. 2, I decided to take the plunge into corralling people’s castoff but not properly disposed items. The first thing I found was in my neighborhood—a can lying in the grass. So I picked it up, recycled it and tweeted about it. The content of my tweets evolved over the course of the month, but it started this way: “To promote #sustainability, I’ve decided to create a 30-day litter pickup challenge for myself where I’ll pick up 1 item per day. Hoping this inspires others. #dayone #can.”

My first litter pickup for the challenge.

A few days later, while on a business trip in Cleveland, I stumbled upon the bottom of a planter lying on the ground, so I picked it up and tweeted about it, too. I’m not sure why, but it garnered the most responses of any of my tweets during the 30-day challenge. And “challenge” was the keyword. Shortly after, I got a tweet from a British sustainability advocate with the Twitter handle @WeybridgeStrEAT who asked to participate as well and asked about what hashtag to use. I decided to keep it simple, so I chose #LitterChallenge.

Along the way, I picked up more than one item on several days, but I rarely documented more than one. The point of the exercise was to persuade the average person, who is not so enthusiastic about picking up other people’s trash, to take the plunge once per day.

This planter bottom garnered the most attention on social media.
Why? I have no idea.

Many of the items I picked up were grabbed on my way to the Sphera offices, and yes, it can be a little stressful. You feel a bit self-conscious picking up litter because so few people do it. You get some, “What’s he up to?” stares that can seem intimidating, but maybe that’s just me being paranoid. Other times, I’d find things to pick up while walking my dog, Oreo.

The heaviest item I found was on one of those walks—a 40-ounce beer bottle hiding under a bush. Even Oreo was impressed.

Oreo helped me sniff out litter on our walks.

The glass bottle had clearly been there a long time, and it was also the item that I had to walk the farthest to recycle (about three-quarters of a mile). The farthest I traveled to recycle something was when I stopped my car and grabbed a tinfoil package on the side of the road, which appeared to have the remnants of someone’s meal still inside. I didn’t look.

The largest item I found was actually a bunch of items—someone bought a 24-pack of beer and left many of empty cans along with a few empty water bottles sitting in the middle of the street.

In case you’re playing litter bingo at home, here’s a list of the items I collected over the course of the first 71 days:

The Litter List

Savvy readers will notice that this is more than 71 items, but, as I mentioned, there were a couple of times I documented multiple things for different reasons. In one instance, a friend of mine told me I should grab a couple of things, so I did.

Pardon the expression, but this is a drop in the bucket of all the litter in my area let alone the world. More than 90% of all the plastic that has been created weighing some 6,300 million metric tons has not been recycled, according to a recent study. And in the recently released The Beach and Beyond report produced by the Ocean Conservatory, their worldwide users collectively cleaned up millions of items in 2018 alone, including:

That’s a lot of items for sure, but there’s so much more litter lingering around.

If there’s one thing that my #litterchallenge taught me, it was to be more aware of the garbage around me when I’m outside. No, I did not pick up everything I saw—that would be a full-time job—but it made me notice things that I normally wouldn’t. I saw trash piling up in empty lots; paper and plastic on sidewalks; bottles, cups and random litter beyond reach clinging to beams on Chicago’s bridges—do they all fall in the Chicago River when the bridge goes up by the way?—and much more.

By the way, if your a company looking to make a difference, thinkstep has an excellent list of packaging trends that should be on your radar.

Trash lingers on Chicago’s bridges, but it’s not as easy to grab as it looks.

Like I said, collectively I believe we can make a difference one item at a time, so I am challenging my fellow Spherions and anyone else who wants to join to pick up just one item a day, take a picture of it and post it on social media under the hashtag #SpheraLitterChallenge. Try it for 30 days; you’ll be glad you did.

One by one, let’s get it done—together. And if you feel like grabbing a few things or a few dozen things instead of just one single item, there’s no judgment here.

James Tehrani

James Tehrani is an award-winning writer and editor based in Chicago. He is the editor-in-chief of Spark magazine.

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