If you were to take a walk around your block right now, what are the odds you would find trash discarded on the road or at the curb? Chances are you can find at least one piece of roadway litter, if not more, polluting your neighborhood and contributing to the nearly 50 billion pieces of litter scattered across the United States alone.
If you’ve gone out of your way to pick up tidbits of trash while out and about, it’s understandable if those efforts have felt in vain. Small, individual efforts may at times feel fruitless when the impact is scarcely noticed by the community—or if finding encouragement and inspiration from other eco-conscious neighbors is hard to come by.
Fortunately, people like Sharona Shnayder are making strides to connect and praise the small climate action work done by countless individuals across the globe. Shnayder, a Nigerian-Israeli environmental activist and co-founder of Tuesdays for Trash, finds immense value in turning individual action into a global action by way of social media. The mission itself? To “encourage individuals all over the world to join together and pick up trash in their local area (safely and responsibly) then share it” using the hashtag #TuesdaysForTrash.
In this week’s episode of Good Together, Brightly’s founder and CEO, Laura Wittig, spoke with the environmental activist and entrepreneur to unpack her company’s mission to engage local communities with one another in the global movement for climate action.
The Scope of Our Waste Problem
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collecting information on the magnitude of human waste for over 35 years. In its most recent report, which ran through 2018, Americans produced 4.9 pounds of trash per person per day. That amounted to 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018.
On a global scale, the World Bank estimates that there are at least 2.3 billion U.S. tons of MSW in the world. And the rumor you may have heard saying that 91% of plastic isn’t recycled? According to National Geographic, it’s true: Recyclable materials make up a solid fraction of the waste stream. In lower-income countries, recyclables account for about 16% of the waste stream, and in higher-income countries, it grows markedly larger, at up to 50%.
Federal waste collection also determines just how much waste ends up in landfills and how much is left for individuals to manage. High-income countries, particularly those in Europe, North America, and Central Asia, collect 90% of waste, whereas low-income countries collect anywhere from 26 to 48% of waste. Most of the collection is concentrated in urban areas. What isn’t collected is left for individuals to dispose of.
Making Small Actions Communal Actions
Shnayder was well aware of this global waste problem. As someone with roots in Nigeria and the United States, and even more connections throughout the world, she gleaned a sense of how big the waste problem was early in her life. It was in 2018 that Shnayder was truly moved to prioritize climate action in her life.
At the height of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shnayder and a concerned friend, then students at Portland State University in Oregon, took the opportunity to turn quarantine into an environmental movement. They turned their daily walks across campus into trash-collecting exercises. They spread the word among friends. What was initially a two-person activity on campus quickly spread among Shnayder and her friend’s international friend group as they began to document and expand their trash collection walks.
“[Trash is] found on every part of the planet… whether it’s in the deepest part of the ocean or the top of Mount Everest, you’re going to find litter,” Shnayder said. But as frightening a realization as that may be, Shnayder found it equally important to celebrate the positive impact any one person could have in minimizing waste in their community.
Using Social Media to Bridge Communities
When Shnayder first began collecting trash on her University’s campus, she used Google Docs to stay organized. But it wasn’t long before she realized her biggest asset in spreading the word was social media.
Shnayder turned to Instagram and asked that friends across the world document their clean-up work through the hashtag #TuesdaysForTrash. Since the movement’s inception online, #TuesdaysForTrash has been used in nearly 1,200 public posts. The movement, also known as #T4T, has blossomed into 11 chapters across 31 countries. Members of the movement have collected 23,000 pounds of trash in the last two years.
If you look at posts using the #TuesdaysForTrash hashtag, you can get a sense of how international the movement has become. #T4T posts document participants in Canada, the United States, Israel, Denmark, and more.
“Collective actions are made up of individual actions,” Shnayder says. “People forget that a lot of the time, especially when it comes to climate change, it can be as simple as just picking up one piece of trash.”
The hashtag became a small haven for climate-conscious individuals. It also served as a positive reminder that a community and support network can be fostered regardless of geographic location.
Coping With the Magnitude of Climate Change
There are certain situations that can make it difficult to feel like you have any say in how your community produces or handles trash. Institutions that prioritize efficiency over environmental cost, governments that don’t prioritize environmental policies, or inadequate municipal support are all causes of waste problems that often feel too big to tackle.
But from Shnayder’s point of view, there’s always something you can do that still has a meaningful impact on the community. In situations where the causes of waste production issues are largely institutional, Shnayder shared the following advice: “The easiest way to tackle [problems and their causes] is to talk about the problem… and then doing your part on an individual level, because it’s also a really important way to start taking control of the problem.”
Another virtue of Tuesdays for Trash is its work of destigmatizing litter clean-up. Trash collection on highways and in parks has long been a favored community service mandate in the justice system. “I think we’re always scared of what other people are going to think, because picking up trash has become such a taboo in our society,” she says. Shnayder’s goal with #T4T is to repaint trash collection as an act of respect rather than a punishment.
That is what makes #T4T significant. Something as small as an Instagram post can chip away at stigmas and break through the typical Instagram feed of food ‘grams and concert videos with a reminder that climate action lies just outside your doorstep. It zooms in on the importance of individual work. It reminds us that there’s always something that can be done, and that there are people doing the same kind of small actions all over the place.
In moments when climate change feels insurmountable, reminding ourselves of the value of small work is needed in the overwhelming barrage of climate news and social media. But with #TusedaysForTrash, you’re just a post away from bettering your neighborhood and joining a global community of climate action makers.
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