Dom Ferris is a man who is building a career out of rubbish. He used to be responsible for organising beach cleans for Surfers Against Sewage. While working there, the Cornwall-based surfer and mountain biker saw many of the issues that he was dealing with on beaches replicated on cycle trails. But there was one key difference: while a proportion of beach rubbish is washed up by the tide, the litter found in the countryside is overwhelmingly (with the odd notable exception, such as fly-tipping) left by its users. It was this realisation that spurred Ferris and a couple of like-minded friends to set up Trash Free Trails (TFT) in 2017.
The news that the litter problem has got worse since lockdown eased is depressing. But Ferris is keen to look for the positives. A recent study has shown that the more individuals visit nature for recreation, the more pro-environmental their behaviours become.
“Littering is a human condition,” says Ferris, “but humans are also the answer to the litter problem. We are all capable of change.” Thirty minutes in the company of Ferris, who is one of two TFT co-directors, is a lesson in enthusiasm and energy. He has far-reaching aims and ambitions: the organisation’s mission is to reduce plastic pollution on our trails and wild places by 75% by 2025. What started as little more than an Instagram account has quickly grown into a movement.
Trash Free Trails worked with local riders to organise litter picks across the country. Mountain bikers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with horse riders and dog walkers, working together in a one-day blitz of trail cleaning. The number of gatherings has been modest so far, but the figures are startling. Last year, 282 TFT volunteers removed and recorded almost 500kgs of litter from just eight trails, including: 644 single-use plastic bottles, 756 confectionery wrappers and 830 dog-poo bags.
The plan was for 2020 to be Trash Free Trails’ breakthrough year. Now a fully fledged community interest company, it planned a nationwide Spring Trail Clean campaign with more organised events. Then Covid-19 hit and any form of gathering became impossible. “It was a really challenging time,” says Ferris. “We had to rethink our approach, but in hindsight we ended up reaching many more people and probably had a greater level of participation as a result of lockdown.”
Over a couple of weeks, Ferris and team developed the Selfless Isolation Project, encouraging individuals to build a relationship with their local wild spaces and showing them how to do so (in a Covid-safe manner). It was an interesting lesson in the power of social media: TFTs main communication tool has remained Instagram, where it encourages its followers to share their litter picking efforts. More than a simple call to arms to collect litter though, TFT wants to create a sense of empowered ownership of our wild places. “If our current problem is the consequence of millions of individual acts of carelessness, we can counter it with individual and collective acts of care,” says Ferris.
I joined in the project for a day, wandering around Dawson Wood on the northern edge of Bradford with a bin-liner and rubber gloves, channelling my inner David Sedaris. I freed Coke cans from the clutches of brambles and found chocolate-bar wrappers dating from the days before Marathon became Snickers. I was surprised by the sense of achievement I felt. Of more than 300 participants who have taken part in the Selfless Isolation Project, 97% reported feeling better as a result, and almost as many felt more connected to nature. There were reports of other trail users spontaneously helping, and just in the past month people have volunteered more than 5,500 hours, removing 1,500 items from 350km of trails.
Where does Ferris see Trash Free Trails going next? “In some ways, we simply need more of the same. We are just about to launch our Autumn Trail Watch event. I’m still wary of organising large gatherings this year, so this will largely be an online event with a livestream from Coed y Brenin in north Wales over the weekend of 23-25 October. But we will be encouraging as much participation as possible.”
For Ferris, there are two strands to the organisation’s work: action and analysis. As part of the Selfless Isolation Project, TFT asked participants to report their litter-pick findings. “I’m always happy when someone removes waste from the trail, but the more we know about that waste – what, where and how much of it there was – the more we can use that cumulative data.” That data will inform TFT’s first State of Our Trails report in 2021 (with support from big bike brands such as Trek and e-bike motor manufacturer Bosch), which will analyse the litter problem in scientific detail, set a measurable benchmark and use the results to shape future efforts.
Eventually and most importantly, Ferris is aiming to reach a level of self-sustaining environmental stewardship. He envisages an adoption of the outdoors by its users that goes beyond our current one-way relationship with wild places. These are lofty aims, but if the success of Surfers Against Sewage is anything to go by, they are achievable. In the past 10 years, its community beach clean-ups have grown from 10 to more than 2,000. Last year, 128 tonnes of plastic was removed from our beaches by more than 90,000 people as a result. Back in the woods and countryside, Trash Free Trails may be some way off those kind of figures, but in the areas it is reaching it is already making a welcome impact.