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Connecting People with Nature

What is the biggest challenge for Trash Free Trails if we are to achieve our goal of reducing single-use pollution on our trails and wild places by 75% by 2025? We believe the most difficult, but most rewarding and highest impact area of our work will be around connecting (and re-connecting) people with the outdoors. It will be about changing relationships, attitudes and behaviours: reaching the people who think nothing of dropping a plastic bottle in the woods or abandoning tents and barbecues at beauty spots.

We believe this isn’t just about putting up posters in car parks, or even just about supporting the herculean efforts of you, our #TRASHMOB. We want to work directly with those people and instead of demonising them, we want to change their behaviours. How will we achieve that? Well, one route will be through our #TRASHMOB Academy.

The OG Crew

If you’ve been a follower of Trash Free Trails for a while, you’ve probably been aware of the antics of the amazing Jo Shwe and a small group of her students who have been acting as trailblazers on the #TRASHMOB Academy pilot.

By means of a really quick recap, The #TRASHMOB Academy is a youth engagement project that offers young people a chance to reconnect. They are offered the opportunity to learn MTB skills, whilst developing their attitudes to litter in an effort to improve their self-esteem and nature connection: using mountain biking as the physical activity catalyst for change.

Jo is one of our A-Team ambassadors and teaches at a Pupil Referral Unit in Wakefield. Mainstream education hasn’t worked out for the children that Jo works with. They may experience emotional and behavioural difficulties, as well as mental ill health. They often present with low self esteem, low confidence, low nature connectedness and a preference for the indoors and video games over the outdoors and physical activity. If you’d like a full rundown of the project, you can find out more here [link to report]. In short, though, the members of the pilot started out actively disengaged, openly littering in class and recoiling at the thought of picking up trail pollution.

Now, things are a little different...

An update

We caught up with Jo to find out how the OG #TRASHMOB Academy is getting on. It’s hard to understate some of the changes, and it is particularly heartening to see that they are long term and have extended beyond the end of the programme.

As an example, one of the students, Mo has started collecting trash in his local community in Eastmoor, Wakefield. As a class they all go out and collect litter every week. It has become an activity that they are interested in and look forward to and they are really interested in all aspects of nature and recycling.

Perhaps most importantly, there has been a huge psychological development. The group has gone from being some of the most challenging pupils in the PRU to becoming more engaged with other aspects of school. Trash Free Trails has helped them develop a sense of belonging and pride. They treasure their TFT clothing and love feeling part of a wider community.

This is obviously so much bigger than just our aims, but in summary, the #TRASHMOB Academy went from being a group of people that were likely to add to the litter problem during their lives to a group of people who are having a positive impact on the trails and in their communities.

Their final “official” job has been helping us shape the #TRASHMOB Academy for V2 and wider roll out, but we know the OG crew will continue being valued members of the TFT community for years to come.

The future

As you can probably tell, we are really proud of what the #TRASHMOB Academy has achieved so far. But… (there’s always a but, right?) it’s just one class, in one part of the country. It’s not going to change the world is it? First up, we think the depth of impact we can have (literally changing people’s lives) makes the time investment worthwhile, even if it isn’t instantly scalable across the whole country.

We have grander plans though. We are already working with another PRU, this time in North Wales. Jo is sharing her learning with them, as well as preparing for a second intake of Academy members in Wakefield.

We are also working with the amazingly talented Ellie Ewart (you will have seen Ellie’s work, even if you didn’t realise it at the time… she designed our logo!) to create a formal #TRASHMOB Academy educational toolkit, packed full of guidance, tips and resources. Ellie used to write and deliver school programmes for Surfers Against Sewage and used to be an outdoors instructor too, so she is the perfect person to develop the toolkit!

Our plan is to roll out the full #TRASHMOB Academy approach, targeting working with Pupil Referral Units and other alternative education provision to begin with. This will involve the full shebang: 6 mountain bike skills tuition, classroom resources and support from Trash Free Trails and our partners.

Alongside this, we are developing a shorter “Trackside” #TRASHMOB Academy programme and we will make all of the educational resources we develop available on our website for anyone to use: from Scout and Guide groups to schools.

We plan to make the Academy content available in full after the summer holidays, so keep an eye out for stories about the next pilots, samples of the content and "Trackside"!

A reminder of the “why”

This really is what Trash Free Trails is all about, both in terms of mission and philosophy. We want to make a positive impact that goes beyond the simple act of removing litter. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the #TRASHMOB Academy might not change the world (yet), but it is profoundly changing the world of its members and having a positive impact on their local area and that is a monumental step in the right direction.


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