Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A social media challenge had people across the globe cleaning up beaches, parks, rivers—and urging their friends to get in on the action.
Garbage hardly makes for a good Instagram backdrop.
But over the weekend, the #trashtag challenge had people across the globe posing with heaps of trash bags. One of the initial prompts, posted on Saturday in the “wholesome memes” subreddit, challenged people to take before-and-after shots of areas in dire need of a good cleaning. The post, which the Redditor aimed at “bored teens,” featured a meme of two photos: one of a guy sitting in a landscape full of litter, and another of him standing triumphantly next to eight garbage bags and a shovel.
Friends took to the beaches, picking up piles of cans and plastic bottles. Volunteers gathered to clean up their local parks and rivers, while others tackled the trash alone.
Some even did their part in between other pre-planned activities: One family cleaned up trash on the side of the road during their trip.
Another did so while taking break from snorkeling in Indonesia:
It’s not an entirely new; #trashtag was first promoted in 2016 by the camping company UCO—though they don’t seem to have a connection with its latest revival. The challenge, which has generated numerous photos alongside hundreds of thousands of likes and mentions on Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter, was a welcome change in many ways. It’s a departure from recent weird internet trends that had youngsters eating Tide Pods and spoonfuls of cinnamon, and parents panicking over a viral hoax. It’s also a marked departure from the concern some environmentalists have that our desire for the perfect outdoorsy Instagram shot may be ruining the natural landscape. And as far as hashtag activism goes, #trashtag was one of those rare social media movements that actually translated to real, instant change on the ground—even if some were only doing it for bragging rights.
Should it have taken the appeal of “likes” to spark enthusiasm for keeping communities clean? Ideally, no. The impacts of pollution already hit close to home for many. Pollutants lead to rat infestation in cities and they seep into our water supply, creating a health hazard inside communities.
But as some advocates have argued, the real threat to the environment isn’t so much pollution itself as it is apathy. Indeed, some of the heaviest consequences of pollution happen out of sight—and, therefore, out of mind. A 2015 Gallup poll found that Americans, for example, care less about environmental issues than they did back the in ’80s and ’90s, with concern largely dropping in the 2000s. In 1989, over 70 percent of respondents said they “worried a great deal” about the pollution in drinking water and in rivers and lake beds. By 2015, those levels of concern fell to 55 and 47 percent, respectively.
The good news is that the predominant users of social media are of the so-called affected generation, which, as my colleague Nicole Jarvosky wrote, means that they’re keen on making their voices heard on issues like climate change and the environment. It’s also true that while some have taken the effort and marched up to politicians, others have confused hashtag activism with action. But that shouldn’t delegitimize the value of challenges like #trashtag.
As one Redditor wrote alongside a photo of their trash haul—plastic straws, empty bottles, cardboard, and a takeout container lid—“every little bit helps.”
The challenge now is to keep the momentum going.