I first encountered Trash Hero in Thailand in 2014. The islands of the south were true paradises, but with all of the characteristics marking a well established and immensely successful tourism economy: gorgeous sapphire blue water, perfectly placid but for the odd plastic bag or hunk of polystyrene bobbing with the tide; white, sandy beaches bursting with fluorescent pops of colour – candy wrappers, discarded toothbrushes, and once, part of a license plate from Nevada; businesses slowly encroaching along the beach toward the sea, with their development a cascade of discarded straws and cigarette butts fringing the sea.
Fingering across the keys of his full-size keyboard – one of the few possessions he’d toted across the world – Roman Peter, a dive instructor by day and musician by night, told me about how the locals were trying to draw attention to the islands’ plastic imposters. Their idea was truly simple: to educate residents and tourists alike about the negative impact this waste has on our environment.
A group of 17 volunteers assembled – Thais and tourists alike – to start to clear its blemishes. The next week, 27 people showed up to help. Then it was 47, then 50.
The motto “We clean. We educate. We change.” was born, and it spread like wildfire.
Three years later, the weekly cleanup originating on those very same Thai beaches has blossomed into a global movement. Trash Hero World now has 42 active chapters in nine countries – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, USA, Czech Republic, Switzerland, China and Singapore. In total, nearly 50,000 volunteers have participated in Trash Hero projects. Trash Hero World mobilises volunteers to remove the waste we already have, collaborates with other organisations and local governments to encourage responsible practices, facilitates education initiatives and provides the tools to help implement behavioural change.
Thailand remains at the heart of this global undertaking, alone boasting 21 chapters spanning all corners of the country – a number that seems to grow each month. Last year, Trash Hero Thailand won the prestigious Thailand Green Excellence Award in the category “Outstanding Contribution to Green Tourism in Thailand.” The movement’s roots begin with its cleanups, attracting thousands of volunteers weekly removing metric tonnes of waste from Thailand’s beaches, lakes, rivers, cities, jungles and landscapes. These events are about more than just picking up trash, however. Chapter leaders work to sensitise volunteers – the Trash Heroes themselves – to the global waste problem and actively educate them on how to affect change through their own daily lives.
One volunteer from Trash Hero Ao Nang testifies to this impact.
“We do it because there is no better way of “educating” people about the impact of trash than to take them up and get them to pick it up,” Trash Hero Seema of Ao Nang said. “Our volunteers come from local communities, schools, or are tourists. They all experience firsthand where litter goes, and they take that experience home. We’ve seen a change in behaviour in almost everybody who cleaned with us. It changes you.”
Bottles & bags programmes
Trash Hero aims to provide the tools to incorporate these long-term behavioural changes. Since 2014, more than 180 businesses participate in the Trash Hero “Bottles & Bags” programme, providing re-usable alternatives aimed at reducing the amount of waste created in the first place. More than 33,000 stainless steel water bottles have been sold to date, which equates to an estimated 12 million plastic bottles that were not produced.
Many of these businesses offer free water refills for Trash Hero reusable bottles, and the project has driven efforts to reduce waste further. Veranda Phangan, one participating business, reported realising zero plastic generated during its latest professional yoga teacher-training course.
“With more and more people visiting our gorgeous island, more and more trash is accumulating and more people are becoming aware of this challenge,” said Chad and Colleen, the owners of Veranda Phangan. “The awesome thing about awareness is that is also increases what people ask for.”
That awareness remains consistent as Trash Hero’s cornerstone mission – particularly through programmes aimed at children. Even in the early days of the first organised beach cleanups, volunteers would screen documentaries for the local children to help explain how pollution negatively impacted the environment. One of the videos showed the autopsy of a bird with a stomach full of plastic.
“All the kids were silent,” Roman recalls. “All watching in awe like they couldn’t believe there was a lighter inside of a bird.”
Trash Hero Thailand actively organises projects for local schools to increase awareness about environmental problems and how to build responsible waste practices. This includes organising cleanups, providing written classroom materials and multimedia presentations. Trash Hero Phuket launched a Student Challenge inviting students on the island to send in photos of themselves with full bags of waste from the beach for a chance to win prizes as recognition. Trash Hero is even in the process of self-publishing a book about a child called “Trash Hero” who experiences the devastation of waste in the environment firsthand. The book is geared for readers aged 5-10 and will be translated into local languages.
More and more chapters are reporting back that huge numbers of children are joining the cleanups week after week. Trash Hero firmly believes in the importance of developing environmental awareness in the next generation of heroes.
Partnerships and cooperation with local governments fuel Trash Hero’s reach further. Around the world, Trash Hero chapters actively participate with organisations like OceanCare, Bye Bye Plastic Bags, #BreakFreeFromPlastic Initiative, and Let’s Do It! World. Throughout Thailand, several chapters have backed the initiatives of the Global Ecobrick Alliance, a group whose mission is to eliminate waste through up cycling. Ecobricks are plastic bottles stuffed solid with non-biological waste to create a reusable building block. The keep plastic from entering the ecosystem and empower communities to adopt zero-cost solid waste solutions with many practical applications.
All of these efforts – from weekly cleanups and refillable water stations at local businesses to education programmes at local schools – make sure the issue of waste and its disposal is kept at the forefront of the local agenda. “Behind the scenes”, Trash Hero is constantly working on building relationships and creating positive, long-term solutions for the prevention of waste.
For Trash Hero projects to be successful, the whole community must act together. Businesses, community leaders, schools and individuals enact the change as a unit, and visitors introduce meaningful exchanges, bridging cultures toward a common goal.
“It’s been an incredible journey, starting with a few black bags and a desire for change,” said heroes from the Ao Nang chapter. “Along the way, with the simple mission of a weekly beach cleanup, we have spread the message to local people, businesses, schools and government. Trash Hero comes from and is part of the larger community and it is together that we make a difference.”