Making a run at a cleaner environment

Ong Jing Yi
Vanessa Zhang
In Shanghai, there is a group of runners who are combining healthy activity with a healthy environment. They call themselves Trash Runners.
Ong Jing Yi
Vanessa Zhang

In Shanghai, there is a group of runners who are combining healthy activity with a healthy environment.

They call themselves Trash Runners.

The group was started in February by Celina Eisenring, 35, from Switzerland, and Kate Sogor, 30, from Hungary.

They drew on a concept that was initiated in 2016 by Swede Erik Ahlström, which has since spread across communities in Europe. The concept is called “plogging,” a derivation of “jogging” and a Swedish term that means “picking up.” In short, plogging is picking up trash while on a run.

Eisenring, who has lived in China for four years, is a technical representative and events coordinator for a Swiss athletic shoes company, and Sogor, who’s been in China for a year, is a freelance representative for a sports-nutrition company. The two speak Chinese.

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Trash Runners founders Celina Eisenring (left) and Kate Sogor

When they first met in Shanghai’s running community, the idea of picking up trash never occurred to them. But they did talk about the volume of waste and litter on the streets as they went on runs, and that got them thinking.

Both women say they were brought up to believe that one should not litter and that the natural environment should be respected and protected.

China, too, has come around to that way of thinking. The emphasis today is on a cleaner environment, as recycling programs kick in and waste disposal is more tightly regulated. The focus is on going green. But still many people throw trash on the ground, and Trash Runners hope to change that mindset.

Sogor and Eisenring began recruitment to their cause through WeChat. They invited anyone interested to join them in plogging. Ten people showed up for the first run.

“We were prepared to have just the two of us,” Sogor says.

The first “plog” was held at Dishui Lake in the Pudong New Area. It was a 12-kilometer run, which proved to be too long.

“We didn’t realize how much more tiring it is to run and pick up trash,” says Sogor, recalling how everyone was exhausted.

Since the first run, strategies have changed. Morning runs, for example, didn’t work out and were scrapped. Then, too, the founders wanted to expand the activity beyond just runners to the public at large.

The regular trash run now takes place every Wednesday at 7pm. Routes are rotated between four and five downtown locales, such as around Jiao Tong University, along Changshou Road and around Shanghai Library.

Each run is about 6 kilometers and can usually be completed in an hour. The run is designed for anyone to take part, with squatting to pick up trash along the way touted as a very effective workout.

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Members of Trash Runners pick rubbish while running at night on a Shanghai street.

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Group sizes vary, reaching a maximum of 50 so far. If a group gets too large, it is split in two and each goes on a separate route. And yes, it’s OK to walk if you aren’t a runner. Picking up trash is what’s important.

Every month, a larger-scale plog is scheduled during the weekend, involving runs farther away from the city.

The idea of picking up waste from the streets might seem like unhygienic in the extreme. The Trash Runners use bamboo tongs to collect litter and put it into a bag. Sometimes there is so much trash that runners have to stop and empty their bags along the route.

There is also a social side to plogging. “After the run, everybody gets together to have a drink and chill out a bit,” says Sogor.

After the weekly runs, Tan Yinghuai, 25, catches the last Metro train home to Songjiang District. He says plogging is more “meaningful” than spending leisure time shopping or traveling around.

Tan is among the founding members of Trash Runners. He wears a T-shirt with the group’s name on it and helps newcomers along the now familiar routes. His favorite part is socializing with everyone at the bar after each run.

Tan has tried to coax his friends to join Trash Runners. Some, like Ding Genna, 28, initially found the idea of picking trash pretty icky. His aversion was overcome after one outing with the group. There is strength, he says, in numbers.

“We’re in a group so we know we look cool,” says an expat named Anne, an avid runner who has been living in Shanghai for eight years and found the group an excellent way to make new friends.

“You get to know a lot more people than you would if you just stick to expat life,” she says. “It’s almost the only place I need to speak Chinese!"

The Trash Runners do attract public attention.

“When people see us running on the streets, they come to us and say we’re good people,” says Eisenring.

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Trash Runners believe their actions will have a positive impact on the general public.

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Visibility pays off. Sherry Liu, 29, joined the Trash Runners after spotting the group running along Suzhou Creek. She says she was surprised by how much waste was collected.

“I didn’t expect so much,” she says, noting a pile of cigarette butts found on one run.

If the group gets overwhelmed by the volume of litter, members prioritize plastic in picking up the waste.

Liu says the group brings a positive force to public awareness. For her part, she is now more careful about the plastic in takeaway meals.

“It would be good if I could influence just one person or one company to cut down on the utensils included in food deliveries,” she says.

The two founders say they hope to get people thinking twice when they are about to throw litter on the ground.

Trash Runners now has close to 450 members and is hoping to join forces with others working in the green movement. Sogor and Eisenring have been in touch with organizations that focus on recycling, among other eco-efforts.

Trash Runners isn’t the only group of its kind in China. In Guangdong Province, another plogging group has been formed. Sogor and Eisenring say they hope this is just the start of a trend across China.

To join the group, add Kate Sogor on WeChat at sogorka or write to info@trashrunning.com.

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Trash Runners occasionally do "plogging" beyond Shanghai.

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