Rubbish Runner

Yes that's me alright, a rubbish runner. Middle aged, dodgy knee due to a stag do accident (best not to ask!) and these days more of an ambler rather than a Mo Farah wannabe. There is a bit of life in the old dog yet however and having done the Cardiff Half Marathon I was wondering what my next challenge might be. 


The answer came whilst listening to the radio one day last autumn, hearing people talking about doing a 1000km in a year challenge. That sounded doable and a good way to keep motivated for an entire year.

Over the 2016 Christmas holidays I started to train and for some reason I started to notice all the litter along my training route. I had run that route many times training for the Cardiff Half but for some reason I hadn't really noticed all the litter. Why on earth not? Had I become somehow blind to the problem of litter? Was there simply too much to possibly deal with? Or was I simply running so quickly that everything was a blur? That's my favourite explanation anyway ;-). 

For some reason on that run, I stopped, bent down and that very first piece of litter I picked up was a turning point. It was a plastic drinks bottle. Surprise surprise there was another and another. By the time I got home I had collected a few bottles and cans which went straight into the recycling bin. On my next run I again collected a few bottles and cans and by the time I had finished that run I had decided that as part of my 1000km challenge in 2017, I would collect at least 1 item of litter per kilometre run. It's not much at all in the great scheme of things but I figured it all helps and it became strangely addictive! You don't believe me? Try it, you'll see what I mean.


Running is a great way to have some quiet time to think and I started to wonder how many bits of litter there are in the UK. I thought this would be impossible to quantify but apparently around 2.5million bits of litter are dropped each day in the UK which is staggering.

I then started to think if everyone who ran, cycled or walked, could pick up 1 bit of litter every time they went out, would that help? A quick internet search suggests more than 2 million people cycle at least once every week in the UK, a similar run at least once per week and almost a third of adults in Wales walk recreationally at least 2 miles each month. Even though my maths is worse than my running, the figures would show that even if all of those people were to do it, we would still be facing a losing battle unless we sort out where the litter comes from in the first place.

I've run a few different routes in different places now and the sorts of litter are always pretty similar; plastic bottles, cans of pop, cigarette packs, crisp packets, chocolate bar wrappers and take away coffee/milkshake cups make up the majority of litter.

So what can be done? Well, if we had a Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans as they do in other countries then we could place a value of some sort on bottles and cans (5p or 10p) which would make it more likely that they would be returned to the shops where they were bought in order to redeem them for money off vouchers as happens in many other countries already. In pretty short time they would largely disappear as sources of litter much as plastic bags have decreased hugely as pieces of litter in recent years since the introduction of the plastic bag charge in 2011 in Wales and 2015 in England.

A shift away from single use coffee and milkshake cups (yes I'm looking at you fast food retailers as well as coffee chains as I see your take away cups, lids and straws on the roadside and in the bushes) would also take these out of the litter stream.


So why is it important? Well, quite a few reasons as it turns out. The Welsh Government estimate that it costs around £70million annually to clean up litter in Wales and that cost is borne by tax payers. How many libraries would that money save? How many extra teachers, social care workers or NHS staff could we employ in Wales for that money? Or put another way, the Welsh Government’s Arbed scheme which aims to increase energy efficiency in fuel poor households, helped 7,500 homes out of fuel poverty at a cost of around £68 for the first phase. In a sense, its needless spending, if we got to grips with litter properly then we could spend this money on far better causes.

There are of course many other issues surrounding litter too, the RSPCA receives around 7000 calls per year relating to animals injured by litter; more litter also equals more rats with associated health hazards; litter gets washed into rivers and out to sea causing huge problems for wildlife there and other knock on issues such as crime, anti social behaviour and associated reduction in feelings of well-being and pride in your local areas.


Back to the running though, I’ve been amazed at some of the things I’ve found on my runs, the top half of a garden rotary clothes dryer for example. How on earth does that get there? An empty brandy bottle...that got me a funny look from a neighbour when she saw me arriving back from a run all sweaty carrying that.

After 6 months of my challenge, I have just passed 500km mark. As I said before, it's amazingly addictive. You start to notice bits of litter you haven't seen yet and the feeling of slowly cleaning a stretch of roadside or hedgerow is quite motivational. In fact I think the litter picking side of things keeps me going more than the overall challenge or the desire to stay fit. 

I know my little training route isn't going to stay litter free for long but at the moment it’s quite clean so I'm changing my route now to see what weird and wonderful bits of litter have been dumped in other local areas.

At Friends of the Earth Cymru we will continue to press for a Deposit Return Scheme on bottles and cans, a ban on polystyrene, action on coffee cups and over packaging and other possible solutions to the waste epidemic so if litter, waste and over packaging annoy you as much as they annoy us then do please join us and help.

In the meantime, in a personal capacity, I'll be doing the same 1000km challenge no doubt next year too so if you fancy joining me and being a 'Rubbish Runner' in your area, or maybe a 'Re-cycle-r' or even a 'Waste Walker' then do let us know and we can follow your progress on here. Let’s see who can find the weirdest pieces of litter!

Individually we can’t solve the problems but we can do our bit to make our local areas a bit more pleasant (and keep fit!) and by working together we can achieve real change.


Written by Bleddyn Lake



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