We hear a distant rumble of thunder. There's no sign of rain — yet. Even if it is on its way, that's still no excuse. Running shoes on and glove and bag in hand, I'm all set to start plogging. Going it alone is no fun, though, so I ask a couple of friends if they'd like to try out the new trend with me.
"You mean picking up other people's garbage?" my friend Petra replies unenthusiastically.
I explain that plogging is the latest trend to come out of Sweden. It's a combination of the word jogging and the Swedish word plocke, meaning "to collect."
The idea is simple — if you see a piece of garbage while you're running or walking, you pick it up: Good for your body, and good for the planet.
Petra isn't thrilled at the prospect but relents in the end, with a "Why not?" After all, she often complains about the trash in our otherwise beautiful park. I also manage to convince my friend Regina and my husband to join us.
Persuading my nine-year-old daughter proves more difficult. Truth be told, she doesn't even pick up her things in her own bedroom. I plead that running in a group will be fun, but she's having none of it.
The idea of running and helping the environment at the same time appeals more to my 12-year-old. And her enthusiasm is enough to convince her little sister. Soon both girls are kitted-out for the cleanup, and we're all ready to go.
A worldwide craze
We meet up at the Vorgebirgspark in south Cologne. On the way, I explain how Swedish environmental activist Erik Ahlström started the plogging craze two years ago.
Thanks largely to viral videos on social media, it has spread around the world. From Germany to Chile, the United States and even Russia, people are responding to calls to meet in parks or on city streets to help liberate their neighborhoods of garbage — all while keeping fit, of course.
My group of newbie ploggers aren't the only ones trying out the trend in our region of western Germany. A group called Plogging Cologne was launched in February by two journalists and sportswomen, Anita Horn and Caro Köhler.
It now has more than 350 members, including environmentalists, housewives, mothers with children, students, and pensioners. A mixed group — just like ours.
We start with a walk through the park, scouring the ground for trash and glancing anxiously at the sky. Will the weather hold? Or will our efforts at civic responsibility be rewarded with a soaking?
We decide to take our chances and start running. The grass looks nice and tidy at first glance, but there is plenty of garbage in the bushes. So we stop and pick it up.
Cleaner city, better workout
My eldest daughter is particularly pleased with her first find — two bottles that can be returned to redeem a deposit. This sport could make her rich, she says with a grin. It doesn't take long before our bags are half-full with bottle caps, tissues, bags of doggie doo and plastic packaging.
Köhler from Plogging Cologne reports picking up a vast array of items — not just coffee cups, candy wrappers and old newspapers; but also diapers, old frying pans, shoes, bike parts and even office chairs. The group organizes disposal in advance, with local waste companies waiting to collect the garbage at the end of the run.
A group of trashbag-toting joggers running into the bushes raises a few eyebrows among the public. Other reactions from passers-by range from curious to congratulatory. One couple enjoying an evening game of badminton even asks if they can join us next time.
Thanks to my husband, who is a sports scientist, we also discover that plogging offers a more complete workout than jogging alone. "When we bend over," he explains, "we're exercising leg muscles which we usually don't use while we're jogging."
Every little bit helps
After about an hour, we're done. Our bags are full and the park is little cleaner. It's not perfect, but Regina is happy with the improvement. Petra admits that taking a small bag with you to pick up litter whenever you go walking or jogging isn't so hard.
But my 12-year-old looks worried. "Our world should be kept in a healthy state 100 years from now. But with all this plastic garbage created every day, it doesn't look good for us kids."
Plogging is of course a small act in the face of the huge environmental problems. Alexander Heyd from Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) shares my daughter's concerns. He says plogging is a fad that will soon pass, and that we need to focus more on reducing plastic packaging.
Britta König of WWF Germany welcomes the plogging trend, but points out that gathering litter doesn't have to be done only while jogging. Yet not only consumers need to act on the plastic pollution problem — also businesses and manufacturers should be held responsible for managing their own waste, she says.
But even if the craze does turn out to be short-lived, Köhler from Plogging Cologne hopes it will make people think differently about waste.
As we made our way through the park, I did start to think about my habits. I considered what I should be buying in order to bring home as little packaging as possible. And I'm happy my children are being prompted to consider these issues, too.
After an hour of running around the park collecting garbage, they'll stop dropping the stuff themselves — hopefully?