It’s a sunny Tuesday night in Edinburgh, which is a rarity for early Spring. It may surprise you to learn that Scotland is not actually a nation known for its exotic tendencies.
The Meadows, the go-to spot for a sun-soaked evening in the Scottish capital, are packed with slackliners, guitar players and the city’s finest not-so-discreetly smoking marijuana. The usual group of mountain bikers are heading off on their Tuesday ride-out in the Pentland Hills. Others are flocking to beer gardens to watch Roma take on Liverpool in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final - a match being billed as one of the most exciting of the football season, and a game which will eventually end 5-2.
We, on the other hand, are going ‘plogging’, a statement which almost certainly requires further explanation.
Plogging is a portmanteau made from combining the words ‘jogging’ and the Swedish ‘plocka’, which means “to pick". Basically, it’s a combination of jogging and litter picking, and contrary to how that may sound, it has nothing to do with law-enforced community service.
Plogging is the latest Scandinavian craze to make its way to the UK, and in Edinburgh, Swedish 43-year-old eco-warrior Anna Christopherson runs the only plogging club in the city.
“Someone tagged me on Facebook asking if I had heard about it about a year and a half ago," she tells me. “I hadn’t, but I said to them that we should do it tomorrow.
“We have a running club which has been going for about 10 years and they’re always up for anything. They said yeah, of course."
The club is in almost every way your regular running club. They meet each Tuesday at 7pm for a run outside Joseph Pearce’s, one of the bars Anna runs in the city. Anna’s bars run a bottle deposit system, where if you bring in an empty plastic bottle you can either get the bottle refilled with water for free or trade in up to five for 10p off a coffee per bottle.
"When you actually start looking for it, it’s horrendous..."
“We’ve been pushing for the bottle system to go ahead in Scotland and just between our bars I think we’ve got 1000 signatures," Anna says.
Before leaving for the meet, I had tentatively text Anna to ask if I should bring anything, “i.e. a bin bag?". Anna responded that she’d bring the bags, but to bring gloves along if possible.
This may seem like a simple request, but it spirals into an adventure of its own after three seperate express supermarket chains fail to serve up the obvious, lightweight plastic gloves.
In a panic, and losing all sense, I end up buying a pair of bright yellow “heavy duty" kitchen gloves, then realise Anna may have meant that she actually wanted me to bring gloves for the both of us, and before I know it I’m having an existential crisis.
What if I turn up to the meet in Inverleith Park, on the posher, north side of the city, wearing heavy duty kitchen gloves, looking like Roger Bannister dressed for a Cillit Bang advert, and become the butt of a new joke, as would be expected if you turned up to most new running clubs wearing bright yellow kitchenware? Oh dear.
I cave and text Anna asking for glove recommendations. She saves the day by saying she’ll bring two pairs, and on arrival I’m relieved to see they are indeed standard running gloves. Given the disposable nature of plastic gloves, I probably should’ve guessed this in advance.
Anna hands me a bag and we get on our way.
Inverleith Park is, as aforementioned, in a well off area of the city. It’s just a stone’s throw from Fettes College, who can list the likes of Tony Blair and Tilda Swinton in their alumni. It’s not so surprising then that at first glance the park already appears to be fairly spotless.
“At least they’ve got bins here," says Anna, “but there’s litter everywhere, and it's getting worse. When you actually start looking for it, it’s horrendous."
She’s right, too. Even in the Pentland Hills, the 100km hill range on the edge of the city, I often come across plastic bottles. With no bins around, I normally stick them in my bag as I go, but this seems a far more alien concept in cities for some reason. Perhaps because of the sheer scale of the issue in urban environments.
Littering is an issue close to the bone of the Scottish outdoors scene - especially after the controversial wild camping ban put in place by Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park in 2017 which forbid camping on the west shore of the famous loch.
“On Earth Day we ran a total of 10km for two hours and picked up a total of 37kg of litter"
The national park cited antisocial behaviour and littering as their reasoning for the by-law, and while the parks faced a backlash from those claiming they were threatening Scotland’s forward thinking approach to wild camping and the great outdoors, the one thing they couldn’t argue with was the littering taking place in these spots.
On my way to Inverleith Park, with litter-picking in my head, I start spotting it everywhere. Crisp packets in hedges, bottles and bags at bus stops. The overflow from communal bins seems to be the worst. I’ve got a heavy head of guilt already over a crushed Vimto can I stepped over just a few strides outside my flat.
We start jogging around the perimeter of the park, and immediately it becomes clear that the edges of any building or fence seem to be the resting place of lost litter, partly due to the wind and, of course, largely due to human laziness.
“If everyone just stopped throwing things away and lids were closed on bins then loads would change," says Anna. “It’s the takeaway culture."
Indeed, 33 million plastic bottles are bought in the UK every day, and up to 2.5 billion paper coffee cups are thrown away in the UK each year. Most people assume the cups are recycled but in reality only one in 400 cups actually are, because it’s normally too challenging to remove the plastic coating inside the cup in order to recycle the cardboard.
In March 2018, Starbucks pledged $10m (£7m) to producing a fully recyclable and compostable coffee cup within three years, and while that would undoubtedly be a start, you have to wonder how much even that would do.
“Even with recyclable coffee cups," Anna points out, as we pick some off the ground outside a playpark, “if you don’t group them with compostables, with food waste, there is no point. You have to recycle them with food waste."
Along the back of the pavillion in the park our jogging ends up coming near enough to a halt.
“Some days we only do plastic bottles, because as you can see, sometimes it doesn’t leave much running," says Anna, before going on to tell me about one of the groups more recent large-scale plogs, for Earth Day on 22 April.
“We ran a total of 10km for two hours and picked up a total of 37kg of litter," she says. “We did things a little differently too - we split into teams for landfill and recycling."
The recycling team won, so to speak, gathering an equal measures concerning and impressive 25kg of discarded litter which they then recycled.
“After that we were tired," she says. “Running for two hours is one thing, but this... [going down to pick litter and back up again as you go] it’s tiring, but it’s brilliant exercise.
“You can see how quickly the bag fills up?"
Within 15 minutes of running we’ve already had to empty our bags into bins twice. It becomes a competition to see who can spot and collect the most litter.
“If everyone just stopped throwing things away and lids were closed on bins then loads would change. It’s the takeaway culture"
Most common are the chocolate wrappers and bottles, but all sorts pop up, including two condom wrappers and even a collection of untouched oranges. We don’t know what you’re up to in the dark of night, Inverleith Park, but we want no part of it.
I even come across the contents of one of those condom wrappers at one point, but I don’t have the heart or stomach to pick it up, especially wearing borrowed gloves.
With the rise of the keep-cup across the UK, and campaigns against plastic straws rising, I ask Anna if she does believe that every little helps, and that it’s all making a difference.
She says: “I think it is [a start] but at the same time there are so many people who aren’t ignoring, but who just aren’t aware of it all yet.
“I’m talking about it every single day, to everyone. There are so many one-use items that are just waste, and you have to remember everything just ends up in a massive pile."
I remark again about how much rubbish you start to notice when you actively looking for it, and Anna jokes: “now you will never not notice!"
We end the day meeting up with the rest of the running group, probably the only other people in the city who know the definition of plogging, and head out past Inverleith’s scenic pond to one final climb where I forget about the litter and focus on my lung capacity.
Whatever your thoughts on plogging, it’s certainly a workout, and Anna’s not wrong, the ideology and the awareness of the litter does stay with you.
As I make my way home, I research the facts - over 150 plastic bottles litter each mile of UK beaches. Approximately 5000 items of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach, and since 1950, we've produced more than 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastics, enough to cover the UK ankle-deep, ten times over.
And as I think about all that, I pass the same crushed Vimto can I walked over at the start of the day. I duly bend over, pick it up and put it in the bin. This whole plogging idea might not be so crazy after all.