37 tips to safely and efficiently help remove litter during cleanups

Written by
Auke Hielkema
August 1, 2022

People who are new to litter picking or participating in organized cleanups are often unaware on how to do this in the safest and most efficient way. The tips below are based on years of experience with picking up litter individually as well as with helping with and (co-)organizing larger cleanups. These tips are important and/or helpful if you join organized cleanups, but they may also come in handy when you plan to remove litter somewhere on your own.

Litter at Braamspunt beach, freshly washed ashore in January 2022

Health and safety

1. Call the organizers of activities to cancel your participation if you do not feel well. If you are ill, you cannot help as well, you can worsen your condition by working in the sun or rain, and you may even be contagious and risk the health of others. Litter is still a chronic problem, so you will have other chances to participate.

2. Wear sturdy shoes or boots, long trousers and a T-shirt. Keep in mind that they may get dirty.

3. Especially during organized cleanups, do not work shirtless or with a bared belly, with a sleeveless shirt and/or with sagging trousers. It looks unprofessional, could be distracting and may even pose a hazard.

4. Wear preferably well-fitting working gloves.

5. Wearing loose necklaces and bracelets is discouraged to prevent damage or loss.

6. To properly communicate with other volunteers and hear any approaching traffic, it is discouraged to play music, whether it is with or without earpieces.

7. Use sunscreen during sunny weather, and consider rain gear when the weather forecast is less-favorable.

8. Make sure you have sufficient drinking water! If you get tired or very warm, go sit in the shade and drink some water.

9. Do not use alcohol or drugs prior to or during cleanups. They affect your perception, influence your behaviour towards other volunteers and passersby, and may, especially during hot weather, cause acute health issues.

10. Especially when working in forested or high grass areas, consider using repellents against mosquitoes, horseflies and chiggers. At the end of the day, check for ticks.

11. When removing larger garbage items, make sure that no venomous snake is hiding in or under them.

12. Notify the organizers and other volunteers near you if you locate a bee or wasp nest or a venomous snake. Do not try to remove or kill them yourself, as this may exacerbate the problem. Simply stay at a safe distance and allow the organizers to address the issue.

13. If you incidentally injure yourself, disinfect the injuries with iodine or alcohol and cover them with adhesive plasters. An uncleaned wound poses a much larger risk of infection. Make therefore sure you always know where to find a first-aid kit. In case of a more serious injury, alert the organizers and seek professional care.

14. Volunteers younger than 18 years old are the responsibility of their parents/attendants.

15. If you take tools from home, make sure that they are all marked with your name. This prevents confusion and aids in identifying lost items.

Volunteers of all ages participating in the cleanup of the Cultuurtuin in Paramaribo in March 2022

What and how to clean

16. In nearly all cases, it is faster and easier for each person to use their own garbage bag.

17. Always take at least one extra garbage bag from the assembly point, so that you won’t have to walk back all the way every time your garbage bag is full. You are also more balanced when walking back with a full garbage bag in each hand.

18. Picking litter is much quicker and easier by hand than it is with a litter picker, unless the litter is in a trench or far in the bushes or when you have serious back problems.

19. The use of leaf rakes is especially useful in places where lots of litter are found in a small area with low or no weeds. In other areas, using a rake just costs more time.

20. Leaves and branches are not litter and are not removed during litter cleanups.

21. Litter should be removed from lawns etc. prior to mowing. Failure to do so creates extra work and risks, as plastic and paper are ripped into smaller pieces, glass may splinter and drinking cans are thrashed, creating sharp edges. Therefore, first remove as much litter as possible, and request the mowing person to toss any remaining litter aside for later removal. Try to prevent the lumping of litter and grass/weeds into a single pile.

22. Although it is good to recycle garbage, it is generally not possible to properly recycle litter; the quality of plastic deteriorates quickly under the influence of sunlight, and littered bottles, cans and bags are often dirty with sand and mud. The effort of cleaning the collected litter thus outweighs the environmental benefits of the recycling process. With the exception of some special cases, all litter can thus be treated as unrecyclable garbage and be bagged accordingly.

23. Pour out the water and drinks in old bottles and cans to reduce the weight, and flatten or crumple them, if possible, to reduce the volume. Do not empty bottles, cans and jars with oil, paint or other chemicals or unknown contents.

24. Small litter is litter too. During cleanups it is not a matter of just removing large, eye-catching litter like plastic bottles and disposable food containers. Cigarette butts, candy wrappers, shards of glass and other small pieces of garbage are to be removed too.

25. Put shards of glass, old nails and other sharp objects in a can or halved plastic bottle or something similar, and stuff that can or bottle then with, e.g., an old plastic bag before putting it in the garbage bag. This prevents the glass and nails from piercing the garbage bag and reduces the chance that people injure themselves while handling the garbage bag.

26. Rubbish that is too large to fit in a garbage bag is placed next to the filled garbage bags for later disposal.

27. Garbage bags are made of plastic too. You should therefore fill them well, so that fewer of them are needed. They may not be filled completely if this would cause them to become too heavy to handle.

28. Divide the area that you are going to clean with others into several parts, with each person doing a different part. This reduces the chance of getting in each other’s way or of missing a spot.

29. When picking litter, walk slowly and carefully look around you. This will allow you to find much more than when you walk faster.

30. If you walk over a path and pick all the litter you see, you will almost invariably still find quite a bit more when walking that same path again in the opposite direction. It is therefore good practice to always walk a path in both directions during a cleanup. If a different person walks the path once more, they will still find some additional litter though.

31. Cleaning up together with someone else is more fun but can also be a distraction, resulting in missed litter. If you team up, you should each choose a different side of the path (or wherever you walk) to pick up litter. This will ensure that you find more than when you both check both sides of the path.

32. Lift your garbage bag, rather than dragging it over the ground or through vegetation, as that may cause it to tear and spill the contents.

33. If you clean up together with someone else and still have an empty garbage bag with you, then pour the contents of your bags together when they are both half full, tie the resulting full garbage bag shut, and leave it until you pick it up later. This way, you can both continue to work with a much lighter garbage bag, making sure you will not tire as fast.

Litter in the Cultuurtuin in Paramaribo, January 2022. This area was the subject of a cleanup two months later.

Preventing new litter

34. Make sure you don’t create litter such as cigarette butts or empty lunch wrappers yourself.

35. Take time to explain to interested passersby what you do and why you do it. Solving the problem of littering is best done by persuading people to take proper care of their garbage and the environment.

36. Full garbage bags should always be tied properly to ensure that garbage is not blown out of them during transport.

37. Do not leave filled garbage bags and the collected bulky waste items unattended at the end of a cleanup. Wait until it is collected, take it with you, or ask sympathetic local residents whether the garbage can be put in their trash container or on their property until the garbage truck arrives. This will prevent stray dogs and tramps to rip open the bags, or miscreants to throw them in a ditch. 

Part of the roughly three cubic meters of bulky waste (next to 97 full garbage bags) collected by 18 volunteers during the cleanup of the Cultuurtuin in Paramaribo, organized by Auke in March 2022

About the author:

Auke Hielkema is a Dutch national who has been living in Suriname (a sparsely populated tropical country in northern South America) for over 15 years. As a nature lover and naturalist, he was annoyed by the litter he kept coming across, and he thus started to remove it. He then also started to participate in organized WCD cleanups, and began to organize irregular cleanups of popular recreational areas himself. His experiences drove him to compose a list, in Dutch, of tips and tricks for safe and efficient litter picking. He has now updated this list and translated it to English. As his experiences with litter removal are largely limited to Suriname, he is interested in extending this list with tips from people in other parts of the world. He can be contacted through his email groenhart(at)yahoo(dot)com and through Messenger on Facebook.

Valuable tips for safe and efficient cleanups from the experience of a passionate Dutch nature lover and naturalist.
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