How to Build a Community Clean-Up Movement

This litter pickup community building guest post has been written Harriet Freeman, Founder and Leader of South London Litter Action (SOLLA).

Community groups are all the rage at the moment, especially those which base their activities outside in green spaces such as litter clean-up groups. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted to many of us that we actually, kind-of, really like other people’s company, and that we place a lot of value in having access to leafy areas where birds sing.

Being part of a volunteer litter picking clean-up group meets both of these basic needs exceptionally well.

I started South London Litter Action (SOLLA) back in the midst of the third UK lockdown, for a whole catalogue of reasons. There was the acute overwhelm from seeing, on my daily walk, littering rates surge. There was the realisation that litter picking – solo, or in socially-distanced small groups – could actually do a lot to serve one’s mental wellbeing. And then there was the fact that my boyfriend would not be seen to litter pick with me (needless to say, he is no longer in the picture).

SOLLA has since developed into a sizable and vibrant grass-roots environmental group with over 130 members. We’ve collected 2,300kg of litter in just the eight months we’ve been going, but our impact is so much greater than the waste we remove.

What this group has provided and continues to provide is social ‘warmth’, connecting people from central London along environmental-care commonalities. We’re a pocket of familiarity and frivolity in an urban web, where conversations and reflections flow between people from completely different spheres of life.

What’s more is that, by turning up week in and week out, we send a visible positive signal to the community. This signaling effect will change behaviour and this change can then scale. For example, a group who live in a nearby estate have now converted their vacant, degraded rubble pits – that SOLLA cleared of rubbish – into thriving planters.

Fancy setting a volunteer-led litter picking clean-up group in your neck of the woods?

Using what I’ve learnt so far, I thought it would be useful to put together a brief guide to starting one’s very own community clean-up group.

Why do you want to set up a litter picking group?

First things first. Before you start bribing people to join your group or forking out savings to buy hundreds of litter pickers (I do not recommend either of these actions, by the way), sit and write a few sentences on why you want to start your environmental group. What social and environmental needs exist for you and your neighbours that are currently not being met?

As mentioned above, I started SOLLA because I’d go out for hours most days, around work, and pick what litter I could against the rising tide of trash. But the enormity of the issue became overwhelming and often I’d return home tear-stained and downtrodden. I needed a team. I needed structure. And I needed a bit of fun. As did so many other neighbouring individuals, long isolated by the city’s indifference to community spirit.

Where do you want to set up a litter picking group?

So, where are the major ‘grot spots’ then, hey? What area do you want your group to cover? At least at first, we need to keep the area(s) reasonably sized to set realistic targets.

This could be your estate, village, town, street, local park, landmark, train station, and so forth. Sites close to your community are likely to keep group members turning up.

I have chosen to keep the site of SOLLA’s group litter pick within 2.5km; the same site selected every week given the consistent need for our action, as well as practical factors (e.g. nearby cafe and market, extensive green space, proximity to low-income estates).

Who will be part of your litter picking group?

There is no optimum formula to find your future group members, but I have been finding the following activities fruitful:
Compostable Bin Liners

● Contacting an existing volunteer network to offer the group’s activity on their volunteer listings, such as Good Gym or Handson London
● Adding yourself to Facebook Groups of existing social or/ and environmental grass-roots groups, tenants’ and residents’ associations, and faith groups
● Spreading the word via posters on public notice boards and in willing cafes, supermarkets and businesses
● Asking/ convincing your friends to come along to the first couple of group litter picks and spread the word

You will also need to find your clean-up group’s identity! What is the name of your group going to be?

I chose the name South London Litter Action (SOLLA) to give the group plenty of space to grow in terms of geographical and activity remit, and because of the acronym’s relation to the sun (‘sol’), and hence optimism and force.

Other examples of group names include Pickup Artists, Dorset Devils, Hilltop Litter Pickers, Cleanup Cranbrook and Beautiful Bruce Grove.

How will you establish and organise your litter picking group?

All you need to get going is an online group which lists a bit of the clean-up group’s details, values and character, and has the function to allow people to join. As awful as certain aspects of Facebook are, their ‘Groups’ I have found to be quite superb for this job. I operate as Administrator for the page but encourage group members to post and share insights, snippets and photos, lending the organisation to ‘horizontal power’.

Although a website would certainly be complementary to a Facebook Groups page – especially given how many people have irrevocably exited the site – it is definitely not a must.

Clean-Up Equipment

With regards to sourcing litter picking equipment, I have used community grant funds and equipment-supplier collaborations, such as SOLLA’s collaboration with Onya.

When I started SOLLA, I knew I wanted to supply everything that anyone could need for litter picking for free – for people to own and take home and use themselves. This has remained a central tenet of group membership, reducing the financial and practical barriers to joining whilst rewarding people for their generosity of spirit.

Compostable Bin Liners

Bits of essential kit I provide clean-up members with:
– A supply of Onya’s XL compostable bin liners
– A high quality eco-made litter picker
– An eco-made bin-liner hoop (see photo)
– A pair of sturdy gloves
– A bottle of hand sanitizer

Clean-Up Time, Date and Duration

Think about when your potential volunteers will be available and get some feedback from your first few members. Weekends are likely to attract more support, with some preferring midweek evenings.

SOLLA’s group sessions remain scheduled on Saturday mornings, 10:30am – 12:00pm, with an optional coffee, pizza, table-tennis (and sometimes beer!) get-together afterwards. This ‘debrief’ is unstructured and informal and has proven immensely successful in brokering friendships.

Clean-Up Snaps and Stats


Maintaining the group’s momentum is essential. A good way of doing this is by taking photos of people in action at events (seeking prior permissions) and retrieving data (e.g. weight of litter collected, new member sign-ups, online survey answers) to then feed into a steady stream of visually-appealing social media posts.

What is required of you, The Community Leader, to pull this off?

Different community leaders will use different temperaments, tones and styles in assuring others that their clean-up team and their mission are worth investing in. Yet there seem to be a few common skills among successful grass-roots leaders:

– Captivating
– Consistent
– Empathetic
– Obsessed with mission/ people
– Relentlessly helpful
– Sincere

Want to learn more about starting your own community clean-up group?

Have a good peruse through existing community group pages and sites to get a feel for how they present themselves. And if you become enthused by a few particular organisations, reach out to them to ask questions directly.

This community clean-up building guest post has been written Harriet Freeman, Founder and Leader of South London Litter Action (SOLLA). If you want to ask her anything, she welcomes hearing from you.


SOLLA in numbers
2- 65: age range of SOLLA members
240: number of SOLLA members
8: number of months we’ve been going
12: number of businesses we collaborate with
2,300: the weight, in kilograms, of all the litter we’ve picked up from green urban spaces
21: number of free pizzas we’ve eaten together
5: number of dates that have come from SOLLA

 

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