Ocean Currents

Interview with the Founder of #TrashTag, Steven Reinhold

How a hashtag is helping teens and others clean up their communities

© Courtesy of Steven Reinhold

Steven Reinhold is one of the original creators of the hashtag #trashtag, which encourages people to post pictures picking up trash in the environment. Started a few years ago, it went viral a week ago when a Facebook user named Byron posted a before and after picture of a trash cleanup, and challenged bored teens to get outside and do something for the planet. Steven happens to be from the same small North Carolina mountain town as Julia Roberson, Ocean Conservancy’s Vice President of Communications, so they sat down to talk some trash.

Julia Roberson: Steven, hello! I can’t believe you’re from Waynesville!

Steve Reinhold: I know, small world!

Roberson: Ocean Conservancy has been sharing #trashtag all week because of our work on ocean trash. Then I read the story from our local paper that you were a Haywood County native, like me. I posted on Facebook that I really wanted to interview you for our blog. Within five minutes, your wife (who is a cousin of a classmate of mine from high school) responded and said that she was married to you, and connected us! And a few hours later, here we are talking. 

Reinhold: This just shows the power of social media—you can be connected to anyone around the world, or someone from a tiny town in North Carolina.

Roberson: So, tell me about when you first became aware of trash and the impact it has on the environment.

Reinhold: In our hometown, I grew up on J-Creek, or Jonathan Creek, and there is a place called Beantown Road where people would just dump their trash. And looking back that was the first time that I realized there is trash out in nature. Nature is my therapy and I get out into the wilderness as much as I can. And to me, there was this really interesting juxtaposition when I would go all this way to a mountain or a creek or whatever, and there’d be a piece of trash there. It really stood out because it wasn’t supposed to be there. I think a lot of people probably couldn’t tell you what species of tree or a flower or a lot of things are, but they can pick out a coke can or a red bull can from a hundred yards, you know?

Roberson: Totally. It’s one of the things that consistently surprises me, all the places that trash and plastic are found, especially in the ocean. From the deepest part of the ocean to the Arctic. And how did #trashtag come about?

Reinhold: I was out in California doing some mountaineering when we had an inadvertent littering accident. I’m on this road trip with a buddy. We’re riding along and we had a piece of trash inadvertently fly out the window. I felt terrible and I decided to pick up a hundred pieces of trash to make up for that. We eventually made our way to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and it was there where we picked up the 100th piece of trash. And the idea just popped into my head that we should create a hashtag to track this.

© Courtesy of Steven Reinhold

Roberson: Such a great idea. It takes our collective need to document everything on social media and turns it into something good, while doing something good for your community. It’s been around for a while, right? Why do you think it took off in the past week?

Reinhold: It got a lot of pick up right when we started. Backpacker magazine and others in the outdoor community featured a bunch of us using the hashtag. I think we started using it in 2015 and up until last week there were about 25,000 tags using #trashtag. And then last week a guy named Byron Roman put up a post on Facebook about a cleanup effort in Algeria and used #trashtag. It just kind of hit the internet with the right time, right words. He challenged teens to get out and make a difference.

Roberson: And Bryon’s post now has more than 100,000 likes on Facebook, and has been shared over 330,000 times. Wow. So, kind of like the ice bucket challenge from a couple of years ago.

Reinhold: Yes, exactly! We had tried to equate it to a challenge a few times, and with Byron’s post it just stuck. You see all these crazy challenges, like the Tide Pod and Kiki Challenges, and this is one that is actually making a difference and doing something good. I’m starting to dream about a celebrity using #trashtag and then challenging others to use it, to bring even more attention to it.

© Courtesy of Steven Reinhold

Roberson: One of things we work on at Ocean Conservancy is helping people understand what happens on land impacts the ocean. And I love this movement for that reason, because it unites those of us working on beaches, coasts, rivers—with the broader outdoors community that is also tracking this issue. It ties all of us together.

Reinhold: Speaking of the connection to the ocean, one of my really good friends growing up, also from Haywood County, Jonathan Merrill, is now second in command on a Coast Guard vessel. He was one of the first people that reached out and said thank you for what you’re doing, because we see so much trash out in the ocean.

Roberson: So, what’s one of the craziest or most inventive #trashtag images you’ve seen?

Reinhold: Byron’s post will always stand out because it helped it explode in the way it has. But one of my favorite things scrolling through Instagram and seeing people sharing pictures all over the world, in 20 different languages. You can’t always get a translation but you see #trashtag.

Roberson: Have you seen anyone using #trashtag underwater yet?

Reinhold: I’ve seen a lot from beaches. And you know, one of the first large-scale cleanups we did using #trashtag was here in Haywood County at Lake Junaluska; another was along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. So, not a beach but definitely a waterway [that flows to the ocean]. And what you probably already know about Haywood County is that no water flows into it. The perimeter is one big ridgeline and all our water originates here. Our county is the highest in elevation on the east coast because of all the mountains that are 6,000 feet. It’s a fortress of fresh water, and all our trash is originating here.

Roberson:  You know what, I actually did not know that. My dad probably does and he’ll be really disappointed in me. So, you learn something new every day. Tell me about your job now and how you’re able to incorporate #trashtag into your work.

Reinhold: Well I jokingly called my Instagram page (@ramblin_reinhold) the digital landfill, because all I did was post pictures of trash. I work with a company now, the Appalachian Outdoor Company and other outdoor gear sponsors, and it’s great to be able to combine my work with raising awareness of a big issue—and just getting the conversation started.

© Courtesy of Steven Reinhold

Roberson:  What trash do you find the most?

Reinhold: Definitely bottles, bottle caps, beer bottles. Lots of granola wrappers.

Roberson:  Bottles and bottle caps definitely feature in our top 10 items of things found on beaches during the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). I want to use #trashtag for this year’s ICC and encourage people to use our app CleanSwell to track the amount of trash they’re picking up. OK Steven, one last question—what’s your favorite waterway in Haywood County?

Reinhold: Oh gosh, well it used to be a secret but so many people know about it now, but Midnight Hole. It’s one of the prettiest places in our town.

Roberson: Oh yes, it’s gorgeous. And wow, I haven’t been there in years. Got to go on my next trip home. Steven, thank you so much for talking to me and for raising awareness of this issue—we’ll see how many #trashtags we can generate with this year’s ICC!

Reinhold: My pleasure. Haywood County, home of the #trashtag!

Steven Reinhold works for The Appalachian Adventure Company (@appalachian_adventure_company) and is one of the original creators of the popular #trashtag.
You can follow him on Instagram at @ramblin_reinhold.

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