Dom Ferris is the brainchild of Trash Free Trails, an organization that tries to tackle a global problem with local action. Learn all about his Trashmob crew, purposeful adventure and how you can make a difference in your own community.

"Leave no trace". It's a philosophy that anyone who spends much time outdoors will have heard of, and the vast majority of us adhere to. If you are reading this article, I'd say it's almost inconceivable that you'd even think about dropping litter on the trails. What if we could do a little more than leaving no trace, though? What if we were to take positive action each time we headed out for a ride?

Trash Free Trails has been in existence for three years now. It is the brainchild of Dom Ferris. He's a man who's whole ethos is to "leave a positive trace". In the early days, he was working for Surfers Against Sewage, managing their organised beach cleans. As keen a rider as he was surfer, he couldn't help but notice that the same litter problems that plagued surf spots around the U.K. were replicated on the tracks and trails he rode.

A global-local problem

Dom's observations weren't particularly groundbreaking. His and the rest of the TFT community's approach to dealing with the issue may end up being groundbreaking, though. Litter is a problem anywhere that humans visit – and in many cases even in places where we don't, as tides and winds carry them across the globe. There is one difference between the woods or mountains and coastal environments, though. Almost all the litter found inland has been left there or very close by. Only the community who are directly using that land are responsible for what is found there.

That's a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who wouldn't dream of littering, but it's reality. If no one dropped a gel sachet, tossed an inner tube, hid a fizzy drink bottle under a rock, the places we ride in and through would look and feel very different. Also, Trash Free Trails wouldn't need to exist. Instead, the organisation has grown quickly in the past two years – fuelled almost entirely by the riding (and increasingly running, walking and other outdoor-enthusiasts) community (nicknamed the Trashmob by TFT). Until 2020 its formula has been a simple one: organised litter-picks at riding destinations throughout the U.K., with a particular focus on trail centres

Each litter-pick had multiple benefits: the most obvious was the (literally) tonnes of rubbish removed from the trailside and the associated visual and environmental benefits of freeing the natural environment of plastic. Less immediately obvious was the prompt it gave others to do their bit. Folk turning up for their typical Saturday spin would see TFT litter-pickers doing their thing and either offer to help out straight away or do their own version next time they were out.

Early on, Trash Free Trails used social media to further build the sense of a community out there – one that cared about their local wild places, and we're proactively taking steps to improve it.

Going viral

By the start of 2020, Trash Free Trails had become a Community Interest Company, headed up by Dom, alongside a small team supporting him. Companies like Trek, Bosch and The North Face are on board to support TFT's aims, and the plan was to roll out the organisation's biggest "Spring Trail Clean" yet, visiting more locations than ever before. When Covid hit – and it was clear that this approach wasn't going to fly – TFT needed to think on its feet. How could it keep pushing the message and maintain the momentum that had been building in the last two years?

Before we get on to Trash Free Trail's response, a quick diversion: I noticed something different in my local woods in the early days of lockdown. Trails, where I was unlikely to see more than the very occasional runner or dog-walker, were now noticeably busier. Whole families were out walking each evening. Couples were running together – a new audience were discovering the natural places on their doorsteps. Even the Government was telling us to get outside and take exercise, and it was lauded as an important way of promoting wellbeing in uncertain times.

More than a call to arms

So, an audience is ready and waiting for Trash Free Trails. There's a whole new demographic of people using our trails and the wild places they take us to. They are "green" to these places, "green" to how to take care of them and how to protect them. TFT has a unique opportunity to empower these people in a way that connects them to nature they might be using for the first time. Act now, and we might just be able to help create a generation of happy, resilient environmental stewards that care passionately about their trails and the wild places they find themselves in. How is this done, though? Trash Free Trails has a plan...

Let's start with a mission statement. The first part of that statement isn't all that surprising (other than clearly being an extremely challenging target): "reduce plastic pollution on our trails and wild places by 75% by 2025". It's the second part that maybe needs a bit of an explanation. "And (re)connect people with nature through purposeful adventure". Rather than simply telling people to pick up litter, Trash Free Trails wants to change the way we see, use and care for the outdoors.

Depending on your age and where you were born, you might remember Public Service Broadcasts – government adverts telling you to buckle your seatbelt, look both ways when crossing the road; that kind of thing. Stuff that you knew you should do, but somehow being instructed to do so pushed you to want to do the opposite. It's easy to come across as preaching when asking people to do something worthy. It is the last thing that Trash Free Trails want. Instead, Dom and TFT Trashmob Academy (more on that shortly) Project Manager, Rich want to help instil a greater sense of connection to the outdoors amongst us, and through that, a sense of purpose… or maybe it's a greater sense of purpose leading to stronger connections to the outdoors?

Purposeful Adventures

Rich took the time to explain the concept of Purposeful Adventures to me. "It's not just about litter-picking. Of course, that is a large part of why TFT exists, but we all love going outdoors, and we all get something from it. Part of what we are trying to do is help people truly connect with what drives them to get out of the door and the rewards that brings them."

Rich leaves me with a Matrix quote:

"Without purpose, we would not exist. It is purpose that created us. Purpose that connects us. Purpose that pulls us. That guides us. That drives us. It is purpose that defines us. Purpose that binds us."

During December Trash Free Trails was sharing its community's Purposeful Adventures. In true TFT Fashion, they came up with a suitably witty pun to encourage the Trashmob, and other followers of the movement to share the purpose that each individual brings to their own adventures (ADVENTures anyone?). By sharing how to make an adventure more purposeful, be it through a simple trash collection, or making use of nature for its wellbeing benefits, they hope that they will light a fire within people, helping them to realise their purpose, and make more of their own adventures. For Dom and Rich, it's a way of inspiring without preaching, encouraging us to get outside with purpose on those days that the weather or our mood might have made the draw of the sofa a little too strong.

Here's Trashmob member Rupert:

"I'm always on the search for the next trail or wild place to spin the legs, free the mind, and release the camera shutter. Connecting with these places I find personal satisfaction on so many levels; landscapes to ride and wander, backdrops to spend time with friends, the history of the land to discover, scenery to be inspired by with a camera, excuses to pour over a map, a night out in the company of the dawn chorus, and spaces to find escape and headspace."

And because it's the Trash Free Trails community they now know that picking up a stray bottle or two when we are out is almost second nature. The end result is a sense of wellbeing for us and a step towards cleaner trails for everyone.

The next generation

Here's another slightly uncomfortable reality. The Trash Free Trails community is already large, healthy and has a huge potential to grow. No matter how big it gets, it's highly unlikely that anyone who starts to pick up litter will come from the small minority who drop the stuff in the first place. If we were looking at Venn diagrams, I'm not sure the circles would overlap.

Rather than existing forever as an ongoing clean-up operation, how can Trash Free Trails reach the otherwise unreached and begin to change their behaviours? Well, on a small scale, they already are. The Trashmob Academy is a small group of teenagers learning to ride mountain bikes. What sets them apart is they attend a Pupil Referral Unit – or school for children who don't fit in at regular school. They often have a combination of behavioural problems, low self-esteem and low confidence. For many mountain bike coaching has been their first real experience of connecting with the outdoors. Put bluntly, some of these kids thought nothing of littering before joining the Trashmob Academy.

Teacher Jo and Coach Harry worked with the Academy, building an education syllabus around mountain biking. As well as time on the bike, students learned about the environment, different types of litter and the effect it can have on that environment. As a result, the students were motivated to do their bit and collect some trash during their coaching sessions. At least that's the theory. In practice, some students turned their noses up at the prospect to start with, but were gradually won over. What prompted the change? Small, simple things that it's easy to take for granted. A logo-ed up jacket made them feel part of something special and the sense of achievement they felt was almost instantaneous. One of their longest-lasting impressions was the sense of being part of a larger community. That's powerful, valuable stuff if you've grown used to being seen as failing and an outcast in a traditional school environment.

One case study won't change the world, but that wasn't the point. It may well change the world for the Trashmob Academy members, and it will certainly make their local trails a nicer place to be. There is a wider impact too. Anecdotally, more than one student even talked about taking the TFT message home and changing their parent's behaviour. The Trashmob Academy is highly scalable too. Imagine if our children had a true outdoor education alongside traditional P.E.? Maybe then we can drive long term change?

Changing the world

At the start of this article, we talked about how litter is a global problem, but on a local level. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by life in general at the moment, particularly when the big issues feel as though they are completely out of our hands. 

Individually we can't solve the world's litter problem, but a single person can radically improve their local environment through positive actions. The power of Trash Free Trails is to bring together this growing community under a single banner, amplifying the voices, giving support and purpose. And, ultimately, Trash Free Trails purpose is to help change the world. Even better, we can all be part of it.

By Ben Gerrish
Ben Gerrish is a passionate photographer and videographer with a profound love of all things two wheeled. Whether it is riding a BMX around town or rallying an enduro bike down a steep chute in the Lake District he'll always have a smile on his face!