One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and now, thanks to Tim Coombs, said rubbish can also result in a year-long, family membership to Fort Whyte Alive, four tickets to a performance at Rumor’s Comedy Club or a $25 gift card for Chaeban Ice Cream.
Coombs maintains the Instagram account Wpg_Plogging, plogging being a portmanteau for a Scandinavian-born fitness activity that combines bending down to pick up litter, plocka upp in Swedish, with jogging (jogga).
The married father of two daughters, ages four and one, is currently running a month-long, online contest tied to Earth Day, which fell on April 22. Fill out a bingo-style card by donning gloves and collecting assorted types of trash — take-out containers, bottle caps and disposable face masks ("the new plastic bag," he calls the latter) make up some of the 15 squares listed on his plogging card — and you’ll be entered to win one of close to a dozen prizes graciously donated by environmentally conscious attractions and businesses.
"I go for a run three or four times a week and always come back with a couple kitchen bags of garbage, at the very least," he says, during a lunchtime stroll around the grounds of the kindergarten-to-Grade 6 school where he serves as head custodian; that’s right, he doesn’t get his fill of tidying up after others during his workday — he feels compelled to do so in his free time.
"Except, because there’s trash seemingly everywhere you look this time of year, I thought, ‘Why not stage a contest that would get others involved, too?’" he adds, noting you don’t have to plog in order to net a prize; plalking, uh… walking or going for a bike ride are perfectly acceptable, too.
"The other day a woman let me know she was planning to take part while she was out and about in her wheelchair. I mean, how great is that?"
Coombs, 32, got into running during his days at Vincent Massey Collegiate, where he was a member of the school’s cross-country team. He took an extended hiatus when he entered the workforce at age 18, but started up again in 2017, prior to the birth of his first child.
While following the same, five-kilometre route that winds through his St. James neighbourhood, he would habitually pause to grab errant pieces of garbage laying in his path, particularly if there was a trash receptacle nearby. To simplify things, he started tucking a plastic bag in a back pocket before heading out the door, to toss whatever detritus he happened upon inside.
For the longest time, Coombs assumed he was the only person doing such a thing. He even created an Instagram account, Run and Clean Up Winnipeg, to document peculiar items — a half-full bottle of wine, a perfectly good travel mug — he was turning up. Imagine his surprise three years ago when his sister-in-law sent him a link to an article that detailed how Stockholm resident Eric Ahlström had come up with the term plogging in 2016, after being shocked by the amount of garbage he was encountering during his daily run around the Swedish capital.
Not only that, the story indicated that thousands of people around the world were presently plogging on a routine basis, including respected author and humourist David Sedaris, who reportedly keeps the West Sussex county of England where he lives so spic and span that city officials there named a garbage truck in his honour.
Coombs was stunned when he learned about events such as one held annually in Pune, India, that sees participants gather as much as 40,000 kilograms of plastic containers in a single, 24-hour period.
Dressed in his usual, plogging attire — black jogging tights, a fluorescent-yellow Manitoba Marathon windbreaker over a long-sleeve T-shirt and New Balance running shoes — Coombs lists off a few ground rules. Not surprisingly, doggie doo-doo stays where it is, as does anything on private property that is out of the reach of his trusty, metre-long, pickup tool. He leaves compostable waste such as banana peels behind, too, but will carefully collect needles and such to protect an unsuspecting child or animal from injury.
He does his best to separate recyclables such as pop cans and beer bottles, though he admits that’s not always possible, especially in the spring when flyers and pages of newspaper are waterlogged and break apart easily from resting under mounds of snow for months.
His eldest daughter Sophie customarily points out litter she wants him to pick up during strolls to the corner store and, recently, some of the students at the school where he works have taken up the practice, as well, aided by a teacher’s generous gift of 25 kid-sized, garbage picker-uppers that are kept near a bank of safety patrol vests.
"Through my Instagram, I’ve also heard from different groups around the city who stage regular, community pickup days," he continues, mentioning an affiliation called Prairie Ploggers that was fairly active pre-COVID, and appears to be getting back into the swing of things.
"There’s another person on Instagram who collects larger items like refrigerator boxes. She makes a mental note of where she spots something when she’s out running, then goes back later with her vehicle to nab it," he notes, stopping to grab an empty toothpaste tube. Another of his followers is a Torontonian whose Instagram account, titled Tims Trash, highlights — or lowlights, as the case may be — the uncanny amount of litter he happens upon bearing the name of a popular coffee conglomerate.
Besides the obvious physical benefits — owing to all the squatting that’s involved, 30 minutes of plogging is known to burn close to 50 more calories on average than regular jogging — Coombs says plogging also affords him much-needed peace of mind. Sure, it’s always fun to listen to music or a podcast when he’s out for a run, but knowing he’s also making the planet a cleaner place for his children while doing so definitely adds to the enjoyment level.
Coombs intends to operate a couple more challenges after the current one wraps up in mid-May. He would also love to land a grant of some sort, to purchase a whack of garbage picker-uppers and plastic buckets — the world has more than enough bags already, he says — that he could happily lend out to interested parties or recreation centres.
"I’m not trying to come off as amazing or anything, because I’m sure there are lots of people doing something similar who don’t share it on social media," he says, replying "dishes and bathrooms, mostly," when asked what cleaning chores he’s responsible for around the house.
"I just figure if I can help spread the word a bit and get even one person to stop what they’re doing to toss a piece of litter into a garbage can, then I’ve done my part."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.