CAUTION: THIS CYCLIST STOPS FOR LITTER
I’ve noticed an interesting correlation when I ride. Generally speaking, the less healthy a product is, the more it ends up as litter.
Cigarette cartons? Terribly unhealthy and tremendously littered. Fast food? Consumed and littered in tragic proportions. Beer cans? Beer isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but when empties are tossed from moving cars, I wouldn’t call it healthy living.
There is a notable exception: energy food wrappers. Healthy products dropped by cyclists and runners engaged in healthy exercise. People who I believe love beautiful outdoor places.
So why do many of us leave a trail of trash?
Are these willful acts like beer cans hurled from a car? Or simply honest accidents in which hands pulled from jersey pockets also pull out empty wrappers?
I think it’s more accident than intent. I suspect sometimes we think we may have dropped something, but we’d rather not screw up a good Strava segment by turning around to pick it up. So we ride on.
Whatever the cause, the result sucks.
The result is that beautiful places get sullied. Out of curiosity and some frustration, I started to pick up energy food wrappers I saw littered on the road. The picture above shows my efforts since last summer while riding around Portland, Berkeley, and some other favorite places.
But it was a ride on Emigration Canyon Road above Salt Lake City that really got under my skin. I picked up seven gel packets on a road that is remarkably un-littered with beer cans and cigarette cartons. But it was littered with energy food wrappers. Six of them were GU’s.
The problem isn’t restricted to one product or brand, but most of the wrappers are gels. A lot of GU gels in particular. There are also Clif gels (leashed and unleashed), some Hammer gels, Stinger gels, Clif and Kind bars, and even banana peels.
A decomposing banana peel is far better than a foil wrapper, but it’s still litter. If you don’t think so, drop one in front of your neighbor’s house when they’re outside and see what reaction you get. But if you must drop a peel, drop it off the path or road. Better yet, pack your peel and compost it at home.
I love those moments of awe when I round a corner and see beauty that only exists in nature, in certain places, and at certain times. I love the feeling I get riding those roads. What I hate is when it’s spoiled by litter, whatever the source, but especially when what I do is the source.
At GU, we know we are part of a problem. And we don’t like it because it’s not who we are. We want a solution. I should say solutions because it will take a number of efforts to get trash – at least energy food trash – off our roads and trails.
Personally, my first move is to make sure I don’t add to the problem. I use a top tube pack with a zippered side pocket. I only use the side pocket for wrappers. It’s accessible and visible, which means I generally don’t drop things – and it’s easy to see if I do.
Second, I stop and pick up other people’s trash. Sometimes this means a lot of stops. I’ve stopped over 100 times so far. That’s a lot of Strava segments interrupted (alas, fewer KOM’s). I’ll admit I don’t stop 100% of the time.
There are times I’m trying to PR a big loop or am on a training ride I don’t want to interrupt. And there are days when I know in advance I’m going to stop for every piece of energy food trash I see. Mostly, I end up stopping.
My goal is to have no impact (by dropping nothing) or have a positive impact by picking up someone else’s stuff. To borrow a hockey metric, it’s my plus/minus ratio. If all my rides have a positive plus/minus, I’m making an impact.
We’re working on ideas at GU to use less packaging, to keep it from being littered, to pick it up when it is, and to make it less impactful when all of the above still fail. We just launched a partnership with TerraCycle so athletes can recycle all GU packaging! Some more improvements are coming soon. Some need more time.
Ultimately, there’s no difference between foil wrapper dropped by a cyclist and a beer can that’s tossed out a car window – trash is trash.
I was +1 on my ride today. What’s your plus/minus?
— Tal Johnson, GU Employee since 2013