By Aland Khalid

Often when there is a new internet challenge, the objective is rather pointless, and has at times caused real harm. These online trends can differ quite a lot and have varying reach on social media. While there are some more wholesome challenges that raise money for good causes, many more seem pointless and without any social value. The debate is split between those that focus on the positive challenges, while others can’t look past the harmful ones. Simple to say, the idea of online trends can be rather divisive. One internet challenge, however, that many seem to agree on and help support is the environmentally focused #Trashtag.

The challenge is rather simple. Find a place in your area that is littered with garbage, take a picture for a before and after comparison, clean up the area, recycle what has been collected, and post your results online. There is no limitation on the area. Some have chosen to clean up on their regular routes, and others have cleaned up larger areas such as entire beaches and parks. The only things needed are a few bags to collect the trash, a pair of gloves to protect your hands, and the will to help clean up the planet. 

While the challenge started back in 2015, it first gained real steam earlier this year on Instagram. Thriving on the photo-sharing app, #Trashtag continued to grow and soon gained support around the globe. Many also decided to organize whole groups that together cleaned up vast amounts of litter and plastic waste. This shows to a great extent that, while it is up to the world leaders to take the climate crisis more seriously, people are ready to step up and help in the fight for our future. Since we are constantly reminded of the growing environmental crisis, this green initiative could be the perfect tool to raise public awareness about an issue that affects us all.

While not being the most popular trend of the year, #Trashtag gained support around the globe unlike many other challenges. The internet being a fast-paced forum, trends come and go quickly, and rarely continue to grow for long. They are forgotten and replaced, but this trend has shown to be unusually pervasive as it keeps resurfacing. This could be because of its uniqueness and green objective, or the fact that each post and completed challenge means a greener planet. After all, it is easy to root for something that helps our planet that is also full of positivity. But a surprising factor to the trend’s endurance could be the controversies surrounding #Trashtag. 

Unsurprisingly, the trend drew plenty of hate from climate change deniers. Despite connecting people around the globe and promoting sustainable living, many posts were ridiculed and filled with foul comments. This particular controversy did however circulate the trend on social media, and more people learned about the trend which only helped it grow. These remarks were however largely overshadowed by another, more legitimate, controversy that raised a genuine concern regarding all environmental challenges. The criticism was directed at the glory hunters, those who only clean up and post under the hashtag for the resulting attention they themselves get. As the trend started to spread through social media, there was always going to be those that only participated for the likes. This led many that might otherwise have partaken to decide to ignore #Trashtag, believing it to be another self-obsessed trend with the environmental goal only as a facade. In these people’s eyes, the trend had become a form of social media greenwashing. While corporations greenwash to increase profits, people on social media greenwash for popularity. 

But shouldn’t their contribution be what really counts, no matter their motives? If people are encouraged to help clean up, it does not matter if some are only doing it for personal gain. Similar to the fact that many companies introduce plastic-free agendas to ride the green wave, the result is still a greener and cleaner planet. This is what matters in the end, and no amount of glory hunting should matter as each contribution cleans up the planet.

I learned about this trend this summer through social media, and while impressed I quickly forgot about it. It resurfaced on my feed a few weeks later, and that time it stuck with me. It wasn’t so much the idea of posting your results online, but to take responsibility and act that fascinated me. It is easy to ignore littered streets and leave the clean-up to someone else, to turn a blind eye, and think it isn’t my problem. It truly didn’t feel as if other people’s littering was my problem as I myself never littered. That had been my excuse for a long time. After discovering #Trashtag, I grew tired of this excuse. I started with the area outside my apartment complex and continued from there. While it was true that it wasn’t my job to clean it up, it was nonetheless a simple task that could easily be completed. I do after all live in the building, and therefore am partly responsible to help maintain it. The clean-up didn’t take long, at most a quarter of an hour, and the area looked much better and cleaner. I had made a difference, and no matter how small, it was something to be proud of.

After that I started to read more about the popular trend and have since completed the challenge several times. When participating in a clean-up you realize how much we all litter, and how much trash we walk past each day. One thing that clean-ups do is make you reevaluate your own consumption and impact. The goal, in the end, is to help people reduce their own waste. Other than having cleaner parks and roads, and restoring habitats previously plagued with trash for wild animals, behaviours and attitudes are the real major change. While picking up trash won’t be enough to save the planet, it is the increased awareness, in concert with meaningful actions, that will prove to be crucial in the coming years.

Illustration: Paulina Cederskär

Aland Khalid studies the Bachelor’s Programme in Rhetorical and Literary Communication. In the future he would, however, prefer a career in diplomacy. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading about current events and tries to be more eco-friendly.

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