Too Much Plastic Sh*t | The Big Dom Ferris Interview.

As Trash Free Trails’ Autumn Litter Watch gathers a hopefully unstoppable momentum, we sit down with Dom Ferris to chat everything Trash Free Trails.

Pete sat at the other end of an internet that sounded like it had a million boiling kettles inside it to chat everything Trash Free Trails-related with the man, the myth, the legend that is Dom Ferris.

Photo by Ian Lean.

What was the inspiration for the State of Our Trails Report?

Necessity. All different types of necessity as well. Our stated aim, and even our name, is Trash Free Trails, and our mission statement was to reduce litter by 75% by 2025. Anyone with even a tenth of a brain, not even half a brain, would have sat there and worked it out.

I set it as a deliberate trap, as by asking the question, I think you’re implying that you want to help. The question would be, how are you going to measure that? How much is out there right now? How will you know if you’ve reduced it by 75%? The only way you can answer those questions, is with robust science, scientific rigour and time.

I wanted there to be a measurable impact, firstly. I’ve had enough of feeling like we’ve had an impact, but we never set up a system to measure that impact, or if we were even having an impact, in the first place, both qualitatively or quantitatively.

It’s nice as the State of Our Trails Report is our ‘hub’ project for the next five years. It’s the project that all our others revolve around and they feed and reflect upon each other.

Photo by Rich Baybutt.

That’s the scientific end of it. The other aspect is wanting to respect peoples’ donation. Their donation of time, especially if they’re a volunteer. If you’re a young family, and you’re coming to Glentress to do a trail clean on a Saturday, that’s 50% of the most precious thing you own, your weekend with your family. We need to pay ultimate respect to them and add as much purpose to that as we can.

So yes, we’re making the difference to the habitat by removing that plastic bottle, if you tell the story of how it felt for you to do that, that’s extra impact. If you record all the data you can about that, then we can add layers and layers of purpose and impact onto what we do.

In late 2022 when we’ll analyse that data, which is when we’ll put the report out, that will give us the evidence to make a plan to reduce litter by 2025, rather than just guessing. We’ll have a baseline, we know how much is out there, we have an idea of the impact it’s having, we have a clear idea of how people feel about it and their appetite to help, then we can make an informed plan.

That is the State of Our Trails report.

Photo by Sam Needham.

Once you’d made that decision, what happens next?

I got accepted, two days ago to do a Masters by research in Bangor University. That is the State of Our Trails report. So I am going to be doing the Masters. COVID has created that as it was going to be a student with more brain capacity than me, and we weren’t going to have a chance to brief that person, so the only way to get it started was to do it myself.

Organisationally, we were already doing the State of Our Trails report, so, we started the project in July 2020, and since then we’ve had 85 people submit surveys to that report, which is incredible. Already the data is so cool.

There’s always two facets to what we’re doing as Trash Free Trails, one is to reduce litter by 75% by 2025 and also getting people to reconnect with nature in what we called purposeful adventure, and we’ll be measuring that scientifically. We’ll be using two psychological constructs called the Nature Connectedness Scale and the other is self esteem.

From my my own personal experience with mental health and 10 years of watching that little spark of pride light up in people at beach and trail cleans I know in my heart that there’s some really incredible opportunities in this area. Now it’s time to try to demonstrate that scientifically. I believe that there’s a really significant link that we can boil down to connection and/or disconnection.

You or I would never think of littering our home trails because we’re so connected to them. Whereas someone who grows up in an inner city and has grown up surrounded by plastic pollution has no connection with their green spaces and don’t see the issue of plastic pollution.

Photo by Paul Box.

Who’s involved in producing the report and what do they do?

The Masters From Tidelines to Trails by Bike: Developing a (Cycling) Citizen-Centric Approach to Reducing Terrestrial Litter and Increasing Nature Connection and the State of Our Trails Report are distinct but totally connected. There are four chapters in the Masters and the four chapters match so closely to the Trash Free Trails strategy as to almost be indistinguishable.

I’ll be project managing a lot of the work, but we’ve also got an incredible chap called Richard Breeden who has just completed a Masters in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh and for the next three months at least will be project managing the nature connection and self esteem work.

In fact, it’s one of my favourite aspects of the work. The amount of incredible talented people that have reached out to lend their skills to TFT. We’ve got science and policy advisors like my mate David Smith, who has been supporting me with the developing of the surveying, and hopefully with the development of an app by 2022. And then there’s Beth Breeden (sister of Joe Breeden) our incredible designer. What can I say? You’ve seen the interactive webpage for the Autumn Litter Watch, she is incredible (bloody good skater too).

Photo by Ian Lean.

And the biggest thing again, Trash Free Trails lives and dies, stands and falls by volunteers. If you come to a Trash Free Trails trail clean, you will be ‘milked’ for data. If we do our job properly, then the report will be driven by citizen science, and by communities. We want to then find a way to empower them to become environmental stewards in their own way.

I hope that thousands and thousands of people drive this forward, providing data on their trails, their front door. They are the most important contributors to this.

All I want is that Trash Free Trails provides the tools for people to use in their own way, in their own voices. All I ask is that they share their efforts with us, because I promise to make use of those efforts.

Photo by Ian Lean.

How did you learn what you needed to know to produce the report?

I left school at 16 and almost, very nearly, got kicked out before I managed to leave school. I never had any plans to go to university, let alone this, so I definitely have a bit of an imposter syndrome feeling going on.

My whole life, I’ve always questioned the things that are stated as fact, the truths by common knowledge… My mum spotted me at seven years old being funny about litter, so I’ve always had a dark fascination in it. Why and how are they doing that? At the age of 41, I still don’t know the answer. No one knows.

What we do is a really frustrating thing, which is ask questions like “how the f*ck can people do that?” without actually knowing if they know if they think it’s acceptable or not. You’re shocked and you’re outraged because, I’d guess, because you love the environment, but how has your shock and outrage protected the environment?

The first thing we have to do is figure out how to connect with these people, figure out where, what, how much, why and what impact this litter is having, or is it just a bunch of seagulls pulling it out of bins?

Photo by Sam Needham.

Is there just too much plastic sh*t for it to be contained? There’s so many things going on, that to simply blame the litterer isn’t going to work.

This goes back to reading about how Keep America Beautiful was formed in 1952. In the early 50s in America there was a growing concern with single use glass bottles being thrown out of cars into hay stacks in places like Vermont, the cows would eat the hay and the glass and die as a result. Vermont State Law was about to pass a ruling on the banning of single use glass bottles. Coca Cola and Dixie Cups, amongst others, heard of this ruling, wanted to keep churning things out at war production levels so formed an alliance of big producers and formed Keep America Beautiful.

Their strategy was to blame the consumer. They came up with the term ‘litterbug’ and completely reframed it and deflected onto the consumer. That narrative has been the same ever since.

The first chapter in my masters is all about that. I believe that many established ‘anti-litter’ campaigns are founded upon this ‘sleight of hand’ by big business and I have never been comfortable with that rhetoric.

Now, I’d like Trash Free Trails to try and say something new and to try to connect with these evil ‘litterbugs’.

Photo by Rich Baybutt.

What does having a brand like Bosch, North Face and Trek on board allow you to do that you might have been able to do otherwise?

They’ve allowed me to eat. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Trek and Bosch this year.

Firstly, it’s resources… Jez at Trek stuck his neck out massively last year. Nobody really knew about Trash Free Trails, we’d never delivered a professional project before, and they donated a game changing amount of money to us. That was incredible.

We see ourselves as working as part of an ecosystem, so it isn’t a case of taking the money and walking away, we want to work with these people and these brands. Let’s not just work on one project together, let’s partner up for three to five years because that’s how long we feel it will take to make a difference.

They’ve put their hands in their pockets in a difficult time, they’ve taken a risk on us, they’ve trusted to make use of the money they’ve donated to us, but also staying in touch and being collaborators. From that we’ve become friends, having frank conversations, letting me run things by them. Shared values organisationally and on a human-to-human basis is really important too.

How important is this baseline study to everything that comes after it?

I may have slightly contradicted myself. It’s been one hell of a year. In March, we hadn’t yet been paid by our sponsors for the Spring Trail Clean Tour, then lockdown hit, and I didn’t have anywhere to live, and I wondered whether that was it for Trash Free Trails… Maybe the sponsors weren’t going to pay us…

I spent some time at my friends’ house (Ross Lambie and his partner Victoria McMullen), and had this revelation or rather, realisation when walking their crazy dog Monty in the beautiful redwood forest out back of their house in Mid Wales. That revelation was the Selfless Isolation project. Everything has come from that.

I’ve spent so much time plotting to stay alive, that I can’t stop. I can’t stop trying to solve things and come up with new solutions.

Over the last few weeks I think I have been confusing some people. I was blasting too much stuff at them. It’s been such an intense 6 months and I’ve pretty much spent every waking minute plotting ways to grow our impact (and keep TFT alive) that I’d lost the ability to do the old ‘elevator pitch’.

Photo by Ian Lean.

I was losing the very essence of what Trash Free Trails was all about, which is in its name. Let’s just try our best to create trash free trails.

It doesn’t need justification or explanation. It’s like the yin to the yang of the scientific report. Its personally very important to me, it’s a tiny piece in the massive jigsaw of sustainability and conservation. But, if you see any value in what we do, or it compels you to do anything, then the bottom line is that there’s way too much plastic pollution on our trails and we’ve a job on to get it out of there. It’ll take us many years and that doesn’t take into account what’s being put into the system.

The most important bit is getting out there and filling the bucket up every now and again. That’s what keeps you connected. If you find yourself doing that after six months or a year, then you’re in. At that point, that’s when the relationship can start evolving.

All too often though, we try and jump too far to start with and you see people burn out and lose interest.

Orbea Rise ebike

Fill a bucket or a bag up first. That’s the key. See how you feel afterwards.

Photo by Rich Baybutt.

Tell me more about the Autumn Litter Watch.

This is one of the projects I am really proud of because we’ve managed to get it off the ground during COVID. Pre-COVID, all we had was the Spring Trail Clean Tour and we had some ideas. We managed to get the Selfless Isolation and the State of Our Trails Report, and the Autumn Litter Watch funded and ready-ish.

Definitely got to pause here and say a huge thank you to our Autumn Litter Watch partners; The North Face UK, EOCA, Komoot, Muc-Off and Presca Sportswear.

This is another project I came up with when I was with Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).

I thought we’d got ourselves into a rut by kind of accidentally making up some rules that perhaps weren’t the only or best way to do things. Now, before I go on, let me say that the work and impact of SAS is incredible. Last year they mobilised 100,000 volunteers and did almost 2000 beach cleans, that’s so cool. It’s just that I personally had begun to feel more and more disconnected from the very people and places that I was working so hard to protect.

One of the main concerns I had was that this chase for ‘more people, more noise’, often resulted in us being able to spend less time in each place and give less attention to people… This ‘distillation’ effect started to feel a bit like an activism arms race and whilst I couldn’t argue with the results, I knew it wasn’t my style.

Photo by Ian Lean.

A good example would be your traditional beach clean. That would be two hours long. So if you were doing ten days of trail cleans, you’re setting up a full event after a bad sleep in a random hotel, then driving to the event, you get lost, setting up, argue about where to put the tent, the first people turn up too early, then, before you know it, you’re packing up and going, there’s no time to develop relationships or simply to ride your bike with people in these beautiful places.

The heart of things had been stripped away for me and I believed that there was a way that you could have both big impact and loads of people involved as well as creating and nurturing deep connections.

So I started thinking about how we could get a deeper immersion and connection while still activating loads of people across the world. I’ve always loved Springwatch and Autumnwatch. They have their central set, then all their field experts out doing loads of cool things all over the country. I thought we could do our own, slightly more anarchic, daft version of that.

We’d go to an incredible MTB/mountain location. Like Coed Y Brenin or Grizedale, set up a HQ for the live cast, and then seed that months ahead with a digital tool kit, like the Great British Bird Watch. The whole weekend is a load of activations and activities and, hopefully, people across the World would join in and all we’d be doing is sharing their amazing stories from the side of a fire in the woods somewhere.

Photo by Ian Lean.

Then COVID hit. Sh*t.

So, our first response was to call the ‘A-TEAM’, our team of #TRASHMOB Ambassadors. We booked a hostel for 32 people near Dolgellau and we were going to do it from there, full improv style with Dom and Jamie from Open Wide Agency filming actually. Then that got hit on the head, then we tried to make it so people were camping and that didn’t work…

I did start to doubt whether anything would happen, but still really liked the Autumnwatch idea, we still needed the data and we really felt that the appetite, even the need, from people for something meaningful to do. At the end of it all, the volunteers and data are at the heart of this.

Fast forward to the 28th of October, we’re just over halfway through the Autumn Litter Watch – Halloween Cleans week and we’ve had hundreds of engagements, over 1000 new followers on Instagram, been of BBC Radio Wales and Danny MacAskill himself did a #halloweenclean yesterday as part of our #TRASHOFF Challenge.

Our Tour de Trash next year will be all bike-powered trail clean tour. I’m really excited to talk about that. The autumn and spring projects are super important to drive this all forward.

We wanted to have fun, as the cleans are quite serious, so we threw Halloween into it. You can get stuck into the Muc-Off Trash Off Challenge, Trail Bandit Bingo, Presca Plastic Bottle Hunt and the Halloween Trail Cleans in Trash Free Trails’ Autumn Litter Watch.

These all feed into each other too, we’re going to send 1000 plastic bottles to Presca to turn into clothes and do a massive trail clean at the end, dressed up like idiots.

Photo by Sandy Plenty.

Favourite moments so far?

It happened yesterday. So cool.

Our first ever Trash Mob Academy students graduated yesterday at Leeds Urban Bike Park.

About eight weeks ago, a woman called Jo Shwe emailed me and said she really liked Trash free Trails and said that she was putting together an education programme and was wondering if she could use our logo. She also mentioned that she’s a teacher at a pupil referral unit in Wakefield, and she wanted to use Trash Free Trails to create a programme for our most disengaged kids.

I thought this was incredible from the off and offered her more help than just our logo. We then had these really cool conversations that made it clear that she’s an incredible teacher, the right person for the job. Fast forward to yesterday and Sprayway are supporting it, so the kids got branded Sprayway jackets, a certificate, a British Cycling coach led the group, Cotic supported it and Rich Baybutt went and took photos and a video, and Richard Breeden has now been employed to project manage it.

He’ll now track their self esteem and the Nature Connectedness through this project. All this has come from five kids who’ll sit and drop litter in class and not even know that they’re doing it. Which feeds back into that earlier conversation.

Last week, Trash Free Trails graffiti turned up in the school. Major moment.

Photo by Sam Needham.

Any disasters?

There’s probably loads, isn’t there? Ok, so I have a slightly silly one and a deeper one, that ok? Although as with most things in my life ‘learning the hard way’ is a common theme.

Last week I hit a new public speaking low. I had been asked to speak as part of the UK National Parks Apprentice Forum, which was a real honour and I wanted to do a good job. I joined in from early on and straight away. I felt really bad for the young woman organising because it was some random chat platform and it was glitchy as hell which was causing these really long silences. Then I couldn’t figure out how to share my screen and see people so I just steeled myself and cracked on to a blank screen.

At 11:06, I finished, I had run 16 minutes over, but other than that I was fairly happy with it. Except there was one problem, when I clicked out of my presentation, there was nobody there. To my great and everlasting shame, there had been nobody there since 10:40, I had frozen, they couldn’t get hold of me and had continued the conference. Ah Covid lessons.

A little more seriously…

Photo by Sam Needham.

Transparency and honesty is really important to me, so as much as it makes me squirm, I want to tell this story as it really defines the ‘behind the scenes’ mistakes that can be made when trying to balance grassroots activism with getting your broken boiler fixed.

I was speaking to Alpkit and they were going to do an Alpkit Against Waste programme, saw it online and, I’ll be totally honest, got a little bit territorial. It was wrong to do it, and we try and pretend that we’re not going to be territorial but we’re asking people to their time and passion to protect these places, then people are going to get territorial aren’t they? I feel like it would be denying human nature to say we shouldn’t, it’s just about acknowledgement and respect.

I managed to get in touch with Alpkit’s MD and have a conversation, we had a really good chat, and he was rushing away at the end and I went in too early about the fact that we’d need some money. I haven’t heard from him since… I sent an apology email and I totally understand why, and I totally misjudged the conversation.

For me this is a function of how hard we’re trying, and that it’s a little bit scary, because I’m all in on this. There’s too much fake perfection everywhere, and weirdly prevalent in conservation.

Essentially, I make so many balls-ups (in both my personal and professional life), that there’s too many to mention.

People to thank?

Cripes, well Pete, as you know on the phone I kind of stumbled on this one, so I’m grateful for the chance to write it. I’m actually going to go full cheese on it and write a massive list of names and add some detail here or there if that’s ok?

So, here goes. Huge advance apologies to those I miss, I promise it’s purely down to uselessness and the rapid speed at which I snuck this in amongst Autumn Litter Watch (I’ll buy you an ice cream if I missed you, how’s that?).

I’ll go chronologically from leaving SAS to have a crack at making TFT work last November, there is zero chance that I’d be doing this interview without them.

My Mum, DC, my sister, brother in law and niece, Louise, Pete, Jess, Tom (and his stag do), Astrid and Axel (in Portugal where I both surfed a proper big wave for the first time and also had a head on collision in a rental car), Jez, Lucy, Harriet, Jimmy, Chris A, the A-TEAM, Steve, Alan, Rachel, Ed, Al, Luke, Paul, David, Katie, Amy, Dave, Rupert, Josh, Jenny, Jo, Kirstie, Duncan, Jo, Gavin, Ina, TrailRippers, Rich, Cy, Dom, Jamie, Pete (you), Rob, Guy, El, Kell, Katherine, Tom, Julia, Hollie, Gordon, James, Cat, Catherine, Tanya, Martyn, Christian, Evan, Charlotte, Rosie, Emeline, Ellie, Jill, Lion, Rich, Beth, Ross, Victoria (who literally saved me when lockdown hit and I got stranded in Wales with nowhere to live for 5 weeks) and Ben.

And last, and the opposite end to least, every single person who has donated even the tiniest amount of time, talent and passion to take action to protect their trails and wild places, without you TFT wouldn’t exist.

Oh yeah, one more thing. It would be an unforgivable dereliction of duty if I didn’t ask people to get involved with our Autumn Litter Watch this week (the 23rd – 31st of October). Check out our tips and tools laden website and get out on some #Halloweencleans this Saturday the 31st.

See you out there.

Dom, Lion and the #TRASHMOB

You can check out everything Trash Free Trails and Autumn Litter Watch related on the Trash Free Trails website here.