Right from our inception, Trash Free Trails has been about so much more than simple trail cleans. They will be our bread and butter for as long as they are needed; acts of care to leave a positive impact on the place we love. What trail cleans don’t do is tackle the issue of how single use pollution arrives on our trails and in our wild places in the first place.
We have long believed that education is the key; but before we go any further, it’s important to clarify what we mean by that. Education isn’t about telling people what to do or not to do. We already know that ‘no littering’ signs don’t work. We also know that the vast majority (if not all) of the population know that littering isn’t acceptable; yet some people still choose to ignore what they know deep down. Why? Well, we believe the ‘litter problem’ must not and cannot be looked at in isolation; it is a symptom of a wider sense of disconnection from society and nature. We will never see that as an excuse, nor are we in the business of being apologists for those who damage our natural spaces. But, by engaging, understanding and educating we stand a better chance of changing behaviours than by blaming or shaming.
So, as we said, education isn’t about shouting DON’T LITTER even louder. It is about changing the record altogether. First of all, it is about creating a connection to outdoor places, and in some cases a connection to anything at all. We see it as our role to show people that our trails, parkland, mountains and beaches deserve our care.
When Rich Breeden joined Trash Free Trails, back in 2020, he brought with him the same goals and aspirations as founder, Dom, but a different background. With an academic background in the links between nature connection and wellbeing, he was keen to leverage this virtuous circle of supporting individuals’ first experiences in the outdoors. He wanted to engender a love of time spent outside and recognition of how that has the power of making you feel good. He wanted to help people reach the point that they care for the places they visit.
How do you go about that though? The answer came from teacher and A-Team member, Jo Shwe. In her day job, working at a pupil referral unit, she saw children who were disconnected from the peers, society and much of the world around them. It wasn’t hard to see why; in so many ways society had already disconnected itself from these children and they knew it. Jo wanted to give them a different kind of opportunity; the chance to learn a new skill, outdoors and through that develop an enriching connection to the outdoors. The Trash Mob Academy was born.
Jo and Rich worked with local mountain bike coach Harry Wood, with support from Cotic, Sprayway and others, to deliver a six session programme. The pupils cut their mountain bike skills at Leeds Urban Bike Park and at the end of each session undertook a trail clean. If you’d like to find out more about the pilot programme, its academic footing and its results, then you can read a brief report here.
In short, we learned a lot, but the programme’s impact can be summed up by the change in the five pupils; a sense of pride in their achievements, strengthened friendships and interpersonal relationships, a new found enthusiasm for learning that went far beyond the course syllabus, a desire to spend more time outdoors… and last but not least, many continued self-initiated litter picks long after the course had ended. (Once again, you can read a little more about exactly how we measured those benefits in the report).
Since that initial pilot, we have run 10 similar programmes up and down the country; from Bristol to Inverness. Each Trash Mob Academy has been self-managed by the educational institution with support and guidance from Trash Free Trails. And time and again, we keep getting positive feedback.
When we started, it wasn’t with the aim of changing the world, but we did want to change the world of those who completed the programme. We also need to recognise that if we are to achieve our end-game goal of changing societal behaviours, we need to scale-up the education process.
That is why we are now fully launching the Trash Mob Academy for all.
Front and centre, we have an all-new E-learning course, available here. This is a fundamental addition for us. While we strongly believe that the best way to reconnect with nature is to be outside, there are times that this is simply not feasible or even possible.
There’s tonnes of scientific evidence to show that people get many of the wellbeing effects of nature just by looking at pictures and thinking about being outdoors; our E-learning course takes participants through the journey of a trail clean from their desk, before encouraging them to get out there and try it for themselves.
We’ve also expanded the rest of our resources, from bite-size tasters to the full Trash Mob Academy programme:
A free, downloadable, 40 minute classroom session
Free Trash Mob Academy ‘Trackside’ resources
A condensed one day Trash Mob Academy programme
A six week Trash Mob Academy programme for riders, runners and roamers – all based on our pilot approach
You can find more information on all here.
The first Trash Mob Academy was based on mountain biking; and we love the power that bikes have to excite and inspire so many. We also know that riding isn’t for everyone; whether that is for mobility reasons, financial reasons, location or simply because they prefer something else. We have now expanded and adapted the programme to work equally as well for running, hiking or simply spending time in nature.
We are also proud to announce that we are partnering with Go-Ape. The team there reached out after seeing the success of our initial pilots. We will be running a ‘train the trainer’ programme later in October with Go-Ape and Forestry England, which will allow their staff to deliver Trash Mob Academy sessions to schools and others.
Which takes us on to a whole other subject. We focussed our initial efforts on children; but education is just for kids. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of adults in the UK that would benefit from a reconnection to the environment. We’ve got plans to tackle that, but maybe that’s a story for next time. Keep your eyes peeled.