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Can a Hashtag challenge Solve Plastic Pollution?

No, but its a good start

Hashtags — What are they good for? At best, they allow us to connect with like-minded people, discover online content, and keep track of fast-changing news. At worst, they enable shameless self-promotion.

The majority of viral hashtag challenges have us attempting seemingly pointless or even dangerous acts to gain more likes or followers, like the Kylie Jenner challenge which prompted thousands of teenagers to insert their lips into shot glasses in order to create a vacuum effect. The point: you too can have the “Kylie” pout. There was also the hazardous cinnamon challenge, a viral phenomenon of eating a spoonful of powdered cinnamon without drinking water that resulted in some teens being rushed to the emergency room. Thankfully, there has also been an increase in purpose-driven hashtags, with people actually using social media to do good.

The #icebucketchallenge that originated in 2014 is a great example of this. It undoubtedly increased awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) while raising funds for a number of organizations helping those afflicted with the disease. But the challenge still had its critics who viewed it as being frivolous and self-congratulatory.

Recently, the #trashtag challenge has prompted a massive global act of environmental advocacy. Even though the challenge originated in 2015, it was reignited in March by Byron Roman, a loan officer and a father of two in Phoenix, Arizona who encouraged his Facebook friends to pick up garbage in their neighborhoods and share a before and after photo. He didn’t anticipate the impact his post would have.

Within a week, Roman’s post had been shared hundreds of thousands of times and had instigated thousands of #trashtag challenges around the world. From kids living in Karavia Children’s Village in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo to adults cleaning Mumbai beaches, Roman’s challenge had touched a chord with people around the world.

In the last few months, our social media platforms have become inundated with content that aims to inspire real action, partly thanks to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who became a climate change warrior when she decided to conduct a lone and lengthy sit-in outside her country’s parliament. Thunberg’s commitment to her cause is in stark contrast to many of the other online activism, movements, and challenges that have come to be called “slacktivism” which some say does nothing but boost the egos of participants and the cause itself becomes incidental.

Will the #trashtag challenge fade away as a trend, like so many others before it, or will it have the staying power to genuinely change our collective behavior? That remains to be seen, but if nothing else, the challenge has already put the issue of litter and pollution on people’s radar, and that can never be a bad thing.

If we’ve learned anything from David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 serieswhich devoted just six minutes on the issue of ocean plastics, we know the impact that one well-timed piece of content can have. Since it aired in December 2017, the momentum on combatting plastic pollution has been nothing short of staggering.

We’re used to seeing litter as a nuisance, but now we’re starting to grasp the full impact of its harm on our environment. The world generates 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste per day (10 times more than we were generating a century ago). And when we zoom out and understand that 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources, we start to see the bigger, more disturbing picture. Every piece of trash on the street that you walk past has the potential to end up in our oceans.

Those working in the plastic pollution space often talk about the importance of “turning off the tap” rather than simply focusing our efforts on clean-ups, like those that #trashtag has been popularizing. It’s true, cleaning a beach or a park or a street can have an immediate “feel good” impact, not only in terms of reinvigorating a sense of pride in our communities, but also in giving people an understanding that their seemingly small efforts can make a dent in the problem. But often, the wider conversation of over-consumption is conveniently forgotten. We feel proud about our one-day effort and go back to our normal but ultimately unsustainable life styles.

Without systemic change in how we live and consume, we’ll never solve this problem. We can’t recycle our way out of plastic pollution. Nor can we simply just shift from single-use materials to other more sustainable ones. Legislations needs to change, polluters need to pay, and consumers need to understand the power they hold by making different choices.

But we have to start somewhere. And so perhaps there’s a place for a well-intentioned hashtag. There’s a reason why the #trashtag challenge and other notable hashtags, like #take3forthesea and #2minutebeachclean, have gained so much traction. They help us stop feeling so overwhelmed by the problem by giving us simple, tangible, and effective ways to be part of the solution.

Will we fix the massive problem of plastic pollution by simply cleaning up our local park or beach? Honestly, no. But if they inspire people to take meaningful action to protect our planet, then #trashtag challenge is definitely a trend worth following.


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