How a Litter Picking Movement Went Viral

Across the U.K. and Ireland, beachgoers have been declaring war on litter using the #2MinuteBeachClean hashtag. . 2 Minute Beach Clean/Instagram

Back in 2009, Martin Dorey was living in the seaside town of Bude, Cornwall in southwest England. He and a group of fellow surfers and beach lovers created the Beach Clean Network, a website to put beach clean volunteers in touch with beach clean organizers.

"Nobody was using Facebook for this type of thing back then — mostly someone would just post a notice in the post office window and the same four volunteers would show up," Dorey told MNN. "So we created a website to connect folks and improve attendance — and it worked great, but we all got busy."

The website eventually petered out due to lack of funding and time. Then, in 2013, the South of England was hit by huge storms and the beaches were covered in trash. Martin, who had already been picking up a few bits of litter each time he surfed, felt moved to see if he could encourage others to adopt his habits. Using the now ubiquitous social media platforms of twitter and Instagram, Dorey and friends started posting pictures of their trash hauls under the #2MinuteBeachClean hashtag, and a nonprofit campaign was launched.

"There’s not many people who actually like looking at a dirty beach, but we also don’t think that there’s all that much we can do about it as individuals. We created #2MinuteBeachClean to change that mentality—to move people beyond the idea that it’s ‘not their job’, or ‘not their problem’, and instead encourage each person to do their part. ‘2 minutes’ is shorthand for ‘no time at all’, and yet a whole lot of 2 Minute Beach Cleans quickly add up."

The power of collective action

Indeed, since having launched the campaign back in 2013, Dorey counts a whopping 60,000 references to the #2MinuteBeachClean hashtag on Instagram, and there are a good number piling up on twitter too. It seems that many people around the British Isles and beyond were hungry for something they could do. "It’s all about massive amounts of positivity. You can’t just berate people about how bad they are to the planet – or hit them over the head with the statistics about how bad plastic pollution has gotten. That information has its place, but it can also become debilitating. You’ve also got to give people a pathway to taking action."

About six months after the social media hashtags were born, the #2MinuteBeachClean campaign scaled things up further with the invention of the #2MinuteBeachClean Boards. Essentially just wooden signs — not dissimilar to the menu boards you’d see outside a café — these installations include a slot for storing plastic bags for reuse, a stand for "grabbers" to keep things sanitary, and information on how to beach clean safely. Dorey explains how they got things started.

"Our first 8 boards were funded by the Keep Britain Tidy campaign and Surf Dome — a surf retailer which had already eliminated plastic from its own packaging, and helped publicize our efforts by putting our hashtag on every single box they send out to their customers. After the first board was installed here in Bude, the folks who organize a monthly beach clean reported a 61 percent drop in the litter they were picking up!"

There are now more than 350 boards at locations across Britain and Ireland, including a board at every single "blue flag" Irish beach (a designation of beach cleanliness), and the campaign is continuing to sell boards to beachside businesses, restaurants, surf schools and local authorities with the hope of continuing the movement. According to Dorey, the boards aren’t just there for the litter pickers; they do double duty.

"It’s great when people take a bag and actually do a beach clean. And we know from social media — and my own random encounters with beach cleaners — that this is happening every single day. But even if you see the board and walk past it, I think it sends a message about community norms and hopefully makes you think twice about littering."

Promoting reuse

Alongside selling boards, the campaign also sells a range of items for a more sustainable, less-plastic dependent lifestyle. From reusable coffee cups and shopping bags to stainless steel straws, the goal is to eventually create a culture where single-use plastics are no longer the norm.Britain had already enacted a plastic bag fee but recently, the topic appears to have moved up the national consciousness. The campaign has gotten a major boost from an upsurge in interest around the launch of BBC’s "Blue Planet II." From supermarkets declaring their intention to go plastic free to the queen of England joining the fight to reduce plastic waste, there's been a shift in the zeitgeist around this issue.

But Dorey is adamant that now isn't the time to take the foot off the gas.

"There’s no doubt that people are talking about this like they weren’t before. And businesses and politicians are making some important announcements — but this problem is not going away any time soon, and we’ve all got to do more to both eliminate single use plastics from our lives, and also to clean up the mess we find ourselves. It’s great that folks are sharing videos about plastic pollution on Facebook, but we also need to roll up our sleeves and take action on the ground — whether that’s campaigning to cut plastic use, or picking up rubbish on the beach. Or, preferably, both."

Asked what advice he has for groups wanting to organize a similar effort elsewhere in the world, Dorey doesn’t hesitate.

"Call us. Email us. Get in touch. We’d love to help kick start this elsewhere, but please don’t just duplicate our efforts. We’ve got a strong brand going here, and the beginnings of a movement. We’d love to see it spread across the globe, and we’d be willing to talk to any partners who are interested in making that happen."