The feel good side of litter picking

Once something done quietly and thanklessly by a few committed individuals, litter picking is a trend that’s been rising steadily over the past few years. Communities have come together, mobilising groups of people who want to make a difference to their local area.

From viral #trashtag social media campaigns to a combination of jogging and litter picking – or plogging – it appears to have gained much more acceptance.

On the surface you could be forgiven for thinking it’s just about the rubbish. But under the surface there’s much more to it than that. Litter picking is not only clearing the streets, it’s making people feel good about them themselves, giving them a purpose, connecting them with nature, increasing their activity levels and connecting them to others.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week we spoke to people from around Derbyshire to see what a difference it’s making.

Mobilising a community

Steve Lawes lives in Bolsover. After many years of picking litter up on his street during his dog walks he was keen to get more people involved and started Bolsover Litter Pickers.

Steve said: “I kept thinking to myself, there must be other people doing this. If we could mobilise lots of people to clean up lots of little areas we’d all feel better about the town. We’d be able to go out for a walk without getting fed up with every bit of litter we see.”

Thanks to support from Bolsover District Council and Old Bolsover Town Council – who provided litter picking sticks and bags, plus an agreement to collect the bags of rubbish – the group was off to a flying start.

Steve said: “I put a message out on Facebook asking if anyone wants to join this litter picking group. I thought I might get about 10 likeminded people happy to do a bit of litter picking. Within a week I had about 100 people. Now it stands at nearly 400 in the group.

“We want to normalise it. We’ve got to clean the world up and we’ve all got to do our bit. It’s become a real community, I’m flabbergasted how much it took off.”

Caring about where you live

There was a similar motivation for Jog Derbyshire group Rogue Runners who hold running and walking groups around Ripley. After noticing the amount of litter in the town on their regular routes, they held a family litter pick over the Easter weekend.

Martine Roebuck from Rogue Runners is a passionate advocate of mental health, having realised the benefits when she started running.

She said: “With it being Easter Weekend we thought we’d encourage the whole family to get involved. We offered each child an Easter Egg and myself, my husband and two girls got involved and they really enjoyed it. Anything that gets you outside in the fresh air and doing something that’s a good deed makes you feel good so it does improve mental health.

“I think there is a connection between running and litter picking. We decided on the litter pick having done our sessions round town and deciding it was needed. When we’re out running we’re running sessions to improve the community’s physical and mental and health and I think getting out and doing the litter pick is the same, to improve the community’s wellbeing. It gives you that sense of wellbeing because you’re helping.”

A boost for mental health 

Sarah Thwaites is a new recruit to the world of litter picking, having come across the Bolsover litter pickers on Facebook. After losing her job of 22 years just over a year ago, Sarah has suffered from depression and anxiety.

She said: “It had got to the stage where I didn’t really want to go out. I didn’t want to mix with people and I’m scared of getting a new job because talking to someone new has just got a bit too much for me.”

Sarah was keen to take on some volunteer work which would allow her to choose her own hours and meet people slowly in her own time.

She said: “I saw people were litter picking and I thought, could I do it? The first time I felt really self-conscious. I was out for about an hour but I found it daunting even doing that on my own.

“But I’m feeling a bit more confident now. I talk to people in the community. They say, ‘oh you’re doing a good job’ and it’s just nice. You feel a bit of satisfaction at the end of the day.

“It’s got me out the house instead of being sat on my backside all day. I like walking and I’m trying to lose some weight so that’s good for me. I get some steps in. That’s why I like it. It’s good for me and my mental health.

“It’s helped me think it’ll not be that bad going out and getting a new job and I’ve actually applied for one in the last couple of days. My job coach told me to put the litter picking on my CV. I never thought you could put stuff like that on your CV. It’s all positive.”

The effect of litter on mental health

For Steve, the daily commute to work down a busy dual carriageway was constantly getting him down. He said: “Before the litter picking group I would drive down the road, see litter and get cross about it. My mental health is deteriorating as I drive to work. It’s disgusting, you cannot believe the amount of litter. There’s more litter than grass at some points. I start the day feeling so cross and you’re powerless to pick up on dual carriageways.

“It gives people a really positive feeling that they’re doing something tangible for the community and the environment. There are people who are retired and get a lot of reward from doing it. A lot of them probably did it anyway but now we’re doing it as a group it’s giving them that real sense of team work.

“People are connecting mentally with a desire to improve their community and thinking of ways to tackle the problem. With mental health it’s quite often, how can you take your mind off things. Being part of a litter picking group has given people something to think about and look forward to.

It’s certainly helped me, given me something to take my mind off work.  I’m a school teacher. I get consumed with work. It’s going round in my head all the time. I go home in the evening and people message me about litter picking, I’m reading the stories and it’s all positive vibes which is a real help.”

Connecting people

“As we end lockdown people can do it together which I know some people are doing already. They’re finding friends with a shared interest,” Steve said.

Liz Marriott is widowed and she’d been a regular litter picker when she came across the Bolsover group.

She said: “It’s good for everyone’s wellbeing and mental health. I was a care manager before so I’m well aware of how low you can get when you’re isolated. Lockdown made it all the more upfront that we needed to do more physically and mentally to keep ourselves well and also to make the community better.

“I’ve walked miles sometimes. I’ve got arthritis in a lot of my body and if I don’t walk I seize up so the more I do the better. It’s a prupose. If you’re just going for a walk, doing nothing it’s a bit boring but when you’re litter picking you’ve reached a mile down the road.

“I mostly go out by myself but I’ve been out with someone else who’s also single and we have a natter and we’ve talked about going for a coffee. The Facebook group is lovely, seeing everyone posting their photos. I’ve found out about new walks I didn’t even know existed so I’ve learnt a bit more about the area.”

You can read more stories we’ve been sharing as part of Mental Health Awareness Week here 


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