Young people these days are incredibly socially engaged. They’re inciting worldwide movements against global warming, choosing to get vaccinated despite their parents’ protests and cleaning up garbage for fun.
Since early March, people from around the world have been picking up trash from beaches, roads, parks and everywhere in between, sharing before-and-after photos of their cleanup successes across social media. It all started when an Arizona man, Byron Román, shared on his Facebook page a photo set featuring Algerian ecologist and activist Drici Tani Younes. Román’s post urged teens to take part in the TrashTag Challenge.
“Here is a new #challenge for all you bored teens,” he captioned the image. “Take a photo of an area that needs some cleaning or maintenance, then take a photo after you have done something about it, and post it.”
Since he uploaded that call to action on March 5, his post has received more than 100,000 likes and 332,000 shares. More impressive, the TrashTag Challenge is having an impact offline, as evidenced by the thousands of before-and-after cleanup photos circulating.
There’s certainly a collective excitement around these social-media-inspired actions for good: While internet trends have rallied often younger communities to eat laundry detergent pods, throw cheese slices at babies and much worse, the world appears appreciative of the deed-inspiring hashtag.
The TrashTag campaign started in 2015, when UCO, an outdoor gear company, launched a project to encourage people to delitter their environments. Román’s post has given the campaign a new life.
“I was just looking to add a positive message,” he told the Weather Channel. “The message resonated with many around the world, so I guess I inspired more than just my social media friends.”
Even before the TrashTag movement took off, people across the U.S. were organizing events ― in Georgia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, for instance ― that encouraged communities to collect trash from local waterways via canoe, kayak and even paddleboard. People signed up for these events as they would for a 5K race.
But can efforts like TrashTag make a difference?
It’s complicated. These undertakings are valiant, but the work goes only so far. The world is covered in garbage, producing a billion tons of it annually. Experts say the problem is likely to worsen exponentially. Waste management problems particularly plague developing countries, as they usually do not have robust trash collection services.
Developed nations have their own garbage problems too. Once plastic is collected from a beach in America, for example, what happens to it? Ideally, it is recycled. But not everything we think we’re sending to a recycling plant actually ends up there. A lot of things cannot be recycled cheaply or effectively in the U.S. and are diverted to landfills or shipped overseas, where they might be illegally dumped or burned.
By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastics than fish, by weight, according to a chilling 2016 report released by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
“We cannot simply recycle or beach-clean our way out of the plastic pollution crisis,” wrote MacArthur, a retired sailor-turned-philanthropist, in a blog post published by the WEF in 2018. “We must move upstream and tackle the flood at its source.”
Some countries and cities are choosing to ban certain single-use plastic items like shopping bags and cutlery. The island nation of Vanuatu, for instance, has one of the world’s strictest plastic bans and hopes to inspire other countries to take action.
But bans aren’t the only thing that would solve this crisis. Experts argue for a more holistic approach, in which recycling and collection infrastructures are improved and big businesses and fossil fuel companies do their part to stem production of unnecessary plastics.
“The problem with plastics is not simply a litter problem, it is a pollution problem created by corporations and mismanaged by governments, and it should be treated as an inherently dangerous substance,” Mirjam Kopp, a global project leader on plastic pollution at Greenpeace, told HuffPost in an email this year.
This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.