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Notes of a litter walker

"In the summer, at a market, an Italian market seller came up to me and asked: “Are you alright? I saw you yesterday too”. I understand that he thinks I’m homeless, poor, or mentally unbalanced. I explain to him that this is my beloved hobby."
Mari Käyhkö picking up litter.
© Mari Käyhkö

When Mari Käyhkö from Joensuu changes her sports clothes on, her identity changes from the researcher Mari to the litter walker Mari. She cannot escape her job entirely: as a sociologist, she makes observations about plogging; what it feels like to pick up litter while walking, and how people treat her when she is “Litter-Mari”.

According to Mari's observations, picking up litter feels different in different places, when picking up different litter items and doing it in different ways. “My experience is that it is somehow honourable and decent to pick up litter on the periphery of the city and from lawns and to focus on the large, easy-to-pick items, such as wrapping papers, and to pick them up from a distance with a litter picker without touching them, because they’re dirty.”

However, Mari also collects litter in the downtown, such as at the surroundings of the marketplace or on the dirty asphalt of the promenade, amid lumps of spittle.

“In these areas, I am constantly watched by people as I literally pick up litter in front of them, occasionally squatting in their path. This is when my activity attracts attention and stirs up potential shame in me. This kind of activity feels a little suspicious in itself and violates social norms.”

On the one hand, Mari, who picks up litter as a hobby, is treated with kindness and encouragement, but on the other, she also causes confusion in people. Environmental sanitation is still considered to be the responsibility of the municipality exclusively.

“Especially in the summer, people make contact with me, and my hobby becomes surprisingly social, even though one of my reasons for doing it is to have some time alone. Some people look at me from a distance with politeness and discreet observance. Some give me the thumbs-up, smile or exclaim as they pass by: “Good hobby that!”, “your street must be clean”, “thank you”, “you're a good person!” or “you're doing an important job!”

Thanks to her hobby, Mari's eyes are drawn in a new way to the small animals and insects that live on the ground among the litter and walk on it. “When the picking up in its endlessness seems futile, my thoughts turn to the animals I encounter and how cleaning their environment can be meaningful to them, even for a moment.”

The text has been edited from Mari Käyhkö’s article published in Ilmiö media.


Finnish Environment Institute (Syke)