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  • Gilbert Kruidenier

10 ways Change is like picking litter

When I am not working, I have a lot of time on my hands. To stay fit and healthy, I thought it would be good to go for a walk every day. I soon found walking is… kind of boring. Tried getting over it, listening to music, podcasts, audio books, but after nearly getting hit by a bike and car (my bad) I thought it best to leave the headphones at home and stay alive and healthy instead.

In January 2018 I got involved with Altona Beach Patrol 3018, a group of volunteers who gather once a month and pick litter off the beach and surrounding areas (no red bathing suits or running in the surf required). While the 40 or so of us do a really good job, there’s more litter than time, so some areas looked good and others really didn’t. And then it hit me. I could do this while walking!

So, I started my own mini project ‘100 walks 100 bags’ 8 months ago and started picking up litter. I only got to 70 walks before I hit the magic target of 100 bags. I started out carrying 1 plastic bag (re-using Woolies home delivery bags) and picked up litter when I saw it. Soon I was carrying 2 plastic bags, then 3, then 4 and at some point, I just took a roll of bags. But it was working, slowly. I’ve since then upgraded to biodegradable bags (they are not great) and invested heavily in a $2.50 litter grabber. I never weigh the bags, but I’d say they easily average at about 2.5 kgs, so that’s about 200-250 kgs over an 8-month period, I didn’t expect it to be that much.

You find the weirdest things, from keys, headphones, underwear, heaps of shoes, clothing, car parts (gear box/break discs/hub caps), pacifiers, coconuts, adult DVDs (?!), many types of balls and even an iPhone. And then there’s the bulk of it: about 500 empty cigarette cartons, 1,000 empty cans/cartons/cups, 1,000 bottles (plastic/glass), 1,000+ plastic bags, 300 newspapers, 500 flyers, 2,000 straws, 500 bottle caps, 2,000 candy wrappers, 2,000 tissues/wipes. Do not even get me started on Macca’s, KFC and Red Rooster and Hungry Jacks bags…

All that walking gave me heaps of times to think and at some point, it struck me that there are at least 10 similarities between the job of Change Manager and a Volunteer litter picker.

1.Don’t judge, just pick it up

It’s very easy to get all judgemental because people are clearly stupid to litter, right? And they are! Those dirty smokers and unhealthy eaters! And those stupid people who can’t keep their bins shut! Yep, that might all be true, but you know what? That litter is still lying there and they are not around to pick it up, so what will you do? The first 30 or so bags I really had to get over myself and then I realised that no one made me do this, I was doing it because I wanted to. For no other reason than I like to think it makes a difference. Like with change management, you can’t always change people’s behaviours, but at least you know you are making a difference at some point, as long as you don’t expect anyone to change overnight and thank you for it every day.

2.Sometimes you’ll make things worse

Plastic bottles that have been out in the rain and sun for a while become very brittle and break in 1,000 pieces when you grip them. Congratulations, you had one piece of plastic minding its own business, now you have about 1,000 very tiny pieces. Well done! Sometimes you’re just better of leaving things as they are. And I think we’ve all been there, trying to solve that issue we thought was really bringing the team spirit down, but by bringing it out into the light, all sorts of other bad stuff floated to the surface too, including cans of worms that you never wanted to open to begin with. Leaving well enough is probably the biggest lesson I learn from litter picking, if only my judgement calls were a bit better…

3.Things are often not what they seem

In our windy country litter travels and the lighter it is, the faster it goes. What you find in a shrub, field or nature reserve, might not have started out there and looking for the source is a waste of time. The same can be said for Change; the behaviours you observe could be caused by something that’s not even around anymore, best just deal with what’s in front of you and see how you can make that better instead of trying to do a whole analysis that helps no one. Just fix it and move on.

4.It really all starts with awareness

Being the positive person, I am, I believe people hardly ever intentionally litter. Sometimes it’s from over-stuffing a bin, not closing lids or bags, things getting blown out the back of a ute, drunken party goers dropping stuff, kids losing their snacks, building site tradies just throwing stuff everywhere because they’ll ‘clean it up later’. Of course, there’s also truly brainless morons who toss things out of their car, they get their own special place in hell (probably on 24/7 litter picking patrol 😊). People are always really impressed with the amount of junk we gather in just 1 hour on the Beach Patrol Sundays. They tssk tssk tssk with the best of them and then walk away and toss their cigarette on the ground, because it’s only such a small thing. Yeah, we pick up about 2,000 of them every time… I run them through Prosci’s ADKAR model (without mentioning it, obviously) and share some ideas so they can go from Awareness of the issue to a Desire to get involved, Knowing what to do and feeling Able to do their part. The Reinforcement is up to their own sense of responsibility.

5.However small, it makes a difference

Will the world really be a cleaner place by just me running around with my plastic bags? Evidently, this is true. I pick litter because I care about the environment and every piece I take off the street doesn’t end up in the water I scuba-dive in, simple cause and effect. Of course, you could argue that oil spills, industrial pollution and waste dumping easily overshadow my measly 250kgs of rubbish picked. All true, but still, 250kgs less is 250 kgs less. So far, I’ve inspired people in different Australian cities and countries around the world as far as Canada to pick up litter too, just by setting an example and making it easy to follow. Just like we do in our day jobs. We might not change the world, but that’s okay, we’re not alone and you never really know how what you do might inspire others. I keep count of the people who have told me I’ve truly changed their lives and am now at 18, my goal is to be at 50 when I die at 88, a ratio of 1 to 50 seems pretty good odds. If there’s 6,000 self-identified Changies in Melbourne alone, we’re talking 300,000 changed lives. I like those numbers.

6.Tools matter

I tried different types of gloves and many different ways to safely picking up litter, but just my bare hands seemed to work the best. But that can be risky with the sharp edges, syringes, glass shards, nails, etc. And then I found my $2,50 litter picker gripper. Not only did it extend my reach, it also made it safer and more fun to pick litter. Not to mention that I looked much less like a bag-man with a mental issue, muttering to myself while diving into the bushes. It made me legit and the glances changed from worried concern to open appreciation. Of course, I could by a much fancier one: but my low-cost one does the job just fine. In Change we often go for flashy tools and complicated forms/surveys and templates, which just confuse people and make them think Change is something arcane and dark, while it’s nothing of the sort. It’s hard work, but a simple tool already makes a big difference and the more can use it without instruction, the better!

7.Doing good can be messy

Litter picking can be truly disgusting. The dog poo bags and diapers are the things I will just not touch, unless they are in a kids’ play area and I think they pose a risk. The whole idea of why you would scoop up poo, put it in a bag and then drop it on the ground eludes me, but we see the same thing in Change. People start out with the best intentions, then get tired or distracted and leave the clean-up for someone else, feigning ignorance or not taking responsibility for the mess they made. Just because you said yes to a job and have the gloves and gripper, don’t mean you have to pick that sh*t up just because you know how. You get to choose every single time and the first person to tell you that you’ve just created your own precedent, should really be the next volunteer to borrow your gripper.

8.Once you start, you see opportunities and mates everywhere

People who pick up litter for a hobby are much more common than you think. They might not be so hardcore as me with my roll-o-bags and litter-gripper, but they carry the bag and walk the talk. We nod at each other and shrug about people we see littering, it’s a silent and respectful ‘club’ and the joining fees are reasonable. Like in any Change Job (psychological) safety is the #1 priority. Getting stuck, bitten or (verbally) assaulted is not part of the deal. And neither is getting hit by a car, falling in a creek or red ant nest because you just had to get that bottle cap. That never happened to me yet, because I try to think before I act. Some opportunities look to good to pass up, but perhaps bring reinforcements and discuss your plan before you actually risk a lot to gain a little.

9.Hard work alone is not enough

Of course, I have no illusion that what I do matters on a global or even local scale, I can only walk that far, carry so much and muster that much motivation. And there’s always more litter than people willing to pick it up. There are whole areas of my town that would easily net 50-60 bags full of junk, but I draw the line (for now) at driving there in my car, picking for two hours and then finding a convenient dumpster to drop all that stuff in. At some point you have to decide how serious you want to be about things. If you want real change to happen, you cannot do it alone. But if it’s just me, I can do what I want, when I want it and in the way that works for me. Working with others can be a compromise, but it also extends your reach and might make you succeed where you alone are not really making an impact.

10.You might just inspire someone

I generally avoid eye-contact and conversation while out and about (don’t want to freak them out), but sometimes you get kids, teenagers, parents or pensioners who just want to say thank you and ask what you’re doing and why. That’s my opportunity to talk about protecting the environment, the ocean and promote the work of Beach Patrol. More than a few have shown up later on to help with the beach clean-up and, in any case, it sets a good example. I feel the role of the Change Practitioner is just like that. What we do and how we do it should invite others to try and do the same. We all have to start somewhere and by setting the right example, you are empowering people to do the same and not feel like they are out there by themselves.

Sometimes all they need is someone else to go first.

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