Practicing plogging paves path to a prettier planet

Amanda Su, Editor-in-Chief

When I first yelled “Hey Jonathan! Do you plog?” to DVHS senior Jonathan Chen one day in our Government class, he paused for five seconds, before yelling back—“What?”

Plogging is an exercise activity that combines jogging and the picking up of litter. It began as an organized activity in Sweden in 2016 and soon spread to other countries. In Swedish, the term is “plocka upp.”

Although Chen has been an avid plogger for the last several months, his decision to start picking up litter during his runs doesn’t originate from a desire to participate in this Swedish fitness craze. In fact, he didn’t even know plogging was a thing. It was just something he thought of doing on his own.

In his sophomore year, Chen joined the Track and Field team and quickly began to observe that there was a significant amount of trash on the sides of the road. Around winter break during the following year, when Chen and his friends were running around the community during preseason, they noticed that the same trash was still on the same trail they had run on the day before.

It was at this point that they decided, the next day, to go on another run on the same trail from Dougherty to the Safeway plaza, picking up and filling two black trash bags full of litter.

“That was only one side of the road. The other side probably had more trash. I knew there was a lot of trash, but I wasn’t aware that there was so much,” Chen said.

From then on, Chen became more “conscious” of the trash around him, picking up and throwing away litter anytime he spots it on the road during his runs.

“Even if there isn’t a trash or recycling bin for a few miles, I just carry [the trash] with me until there is one,” he said. “Most of the time I don’t necessarily bring along a trash bag because it could hinder my ability to run. I just carry the trash in my two hands. Sometimes I recruit my friends to carry some too.”

But even before he started plogging, Chen has always been environmentally conscious, describing himself as a bit of a “hoarder.”

“Honestly, ever since I was little, I’ve always really felt guilty throwing any trash away. I felt really personally connected with the trash,” he said, grinning. “To me the trash has served me a purpose. It doesn’t feel right to me to use something one time and not reuse it.”

As an experienced artist and incoming freshman at CalArts, Chen often uses recyclable materials in his pieces. To find these materials, he goes to Micro — a recycling plant — to sort out different recycled items, notably cardboard, for his artwork.

Sometimes, he paints directly on the cardboard or cuts it up to use within pieces. One of his most recent works includes a small cardboard diorama of a train going through a tunnel.

He does clarify, though, that he usually doesn’t reuse the pieces of litter from his runs in his art since “who knows where they have been and how long they have been there.”

This eco-friendly mindset of his has many origins, one of which includes his longtime participation in the organization Tzu Chi — described by Chen as a “global, humanitarian, Buddhist organization.”

Chen was introduced to Tzu Chi through their Chinese school when he was four years old. But Tzu Chi also operates numerous recycling and reusing projects, including sending shirts, blankets and houses made of recycled water bottles to disaster relief centers.

Chen’s passion for sustainability and protecting the environment also stems from his engagement in global environmental issues via his media consumption.

“I remember reading about the giant trash island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And it was crazy hearing how large it is — the size of Texas,” he said.

More and more, as Chen became more educated about environmental issues, he began to realize and understand the impact that an abundance of trash can have on communities and ecosystems.

“[When we have trash everywhere], the trash breaks down, and they don’t break down to the point where they got back to natural soil or elements. So a lot of the time, it becomes microtrash, which goes into our food system and gets ingested,” Chen said. “Trash also clogs up our water systems so that can have a large impact on our availability of water. And the trash can flow out to the ocean and harm a lot of animals there.”

Chen has been encouraging his Track and Field teammates to help him play a part in clearing San Ramon’s roads of trash. But he also encourages even those who don’t run regularly to just start picking up trash within the school, on the way to school, around Safeway and around neighborhoods.

“If you’re walking your dog, don’t just ignore trash you see. Put it in one of the poop bags you carry with you,” he laughs.
Admitting his childlike naivety and optimism, Chen has always firmly believed that every action counts.

“When I was little, I always thought that world peace should be easy. Everyone just has to love each other! And anything is achievable. So even if one of us just starts to pick up trash, we can save the earth.”