In one photo, a man sits in a forest covered in plastic. In the next, he stands in the same forest — except this time it’s been cleared of debris. Full trash bags line the forest as proof of the work the man put into cleaning up the area.
It’s a simple before-and-after concept that’s gone wildly viral on social media platforms like Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter since Sunday, according to Time. And now the post’s #trashchallenge call-to-action is gaining traction around the world.
“Here is a new challenge for all you bored teens,” the text in the image reads. “Take a photo of an area that needs some cleaning or maintenance, then take a photo after you have done something about it, and post it. #trashchallenge.”
People have cleaned up forests, beaches, roadsides, courtyards, fields, and much more, as part of the challenge.
The #trashchallenge was first started in 2015 by the outdoor gear company UCO, according to Mashable. The original challenge led to 10,000 pieces of plastic being picked up by October 2016.
But this time, it’s really taken off.
The #trashchallenge is part of a much broader movement of people learning about the problem of plastic pollution and then taking action to clean it up. Large-scale plastic clean-ups have been staged in India, Norway, and Thailand, and local champions for protecting the environment have emerged from these endeavors.
Since 1950, humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, a weight equivalent to 1 billion elephants. Although plastic producers often claim their products are recyclable, only around 9% of plastic ever gets recycled because of disparities in waste management systems, lack of capacity, and poor educational initiatives around recycling.
For example, plastic bag producers are supposed to develop systems for recycling them, but only 5% of the trillions of bags used annually ever get recycled.
All of the plastic that doesn’t get recycled often ends up polluting environments and the impact of this waste is beginning to be better understood.
Scientists have found that plastic waste causes great harm to marine life and determined that humans ingest thousands of plastic particles each year.
Protecting ecosystems from plastic pollution will require countries to take action against plastic production, something more than 60 countries have already done.
In the meantime, citizen activists like those joining the #trashchallenge are helping to clean up a global mess.