LUKE DOUGLAS-HOME – plogging – Runner’s World, Feb 2024

Luke Douglas-Home had been plogging long before he was aware that there was such a word, and certainly a long time before he became Britain’s sole entrant in the 2023 World Plogging Championships in Genoa.

‘I think I first heard someone say the word on the Jeremy Vine show about six months ago,’ says the 52-year-old from London. ‘But I’ve been running the coast of Britain collecting plastic for around three years.’ Now he’s officially an international standard plogger, the portmanteau of the Swedish words ‘plocka upp’ (pick up) and ‘jogga’ (jog) that is used to describe the act of picking up litter while running. The word appears to have been coined in Sweden around 2016 and the World Plogging Championships are now in their third year.

Over 80 ploggers from 16 countries took part at the end of September 2023, with Spain and Italy proving themselves the top garbage gatherers. Manuel Jesús Ortega García from Andalusia won the men’s competition, earning 368 points calculated through a combination of distance travelled, altitude climbed and CO2E (‘carbon dioxide equivalent’) collected. Italy’s Elena Canuto won the women’s contest with 115 points. The Serbian Miloš Stanojević sounds like he had the most fun, winning a special prize for collecting the largest quantity of ‘WEEE’ items (that’s ‘Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment’).

Luke, unfortunately, was disqualified for getting lost in west Genoa and accidentally going outside the perimeter of the race area, but he ended up more than satisfied with his excellent point tally for waste gathering.

By his own admission he isn’t a fast runner, so his strategy involved attempting to find the kind of rubbish that would score highly. ‘The most valuable thing to find would be something like a car battery,’ he explains. ‘One guy ended up getting three batteries. I had clocked some fly tipping near the start line so banked a lot of valuable waste that way. Then I was occupied trying to move a steel girder which weighed about half a tonne and would surely have won it, but I couldn’t get it over the line.’

Although it sounds like an enjoyable competition, isn’t it a bit depressing that something like this needs to exist at all? ‘It was fun for me, to do something that is slightly crazy but also serious,’ he says. ‘It was great to be around all these energetic, switched-on people, who are in good spirits – which is the effect that running has. It does increase your hope that things will get better as more people catch on to it.’

On his regular travels as the Coastline Runner he moves at a less frenetic pace but still ends up with a discouraging quantity of waste in his bags. Since autumn 2021 he has been attempting to run the entire coastline of Britain collecting plastic rubbish, covering 20-30km at a time in between working day jobs at Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership and leading the social enterprise company A Future Without Rubbish. So far he has covered the 530km between Lowestoft and Newcastle and collected over 500kg of plastic, talking to schools and local councils about his work as he goes.

‘It started due to my furious depression about COP26 under Boris flipping Johnson,’ he says of the United Nations Climate Change Conference that was held in Glasgow in late 2021, which was criticised for failing to do enough to slow climate change. ‘The possibilities that were there were immense, but they were not grasped at all by Johnson and his crew.’

When he runs in London for pleasure, he doesn’t take his rubbish sack with him. ‘If I was plogging on the canals I’d never run at all. It’s just too depressing.’ On the coastline, however, he finds that he can collect waste and still find some sense of happiness. ‘It has actually made me much more appreciative of our coasts. How amazing that I can work in these incredible places! And some councils are really working on making things better.’

It’s possible he has also managed to hold on to that sense of wonder because he’s lucky to be alive. In 2005 he fell from a horse in Romania and suffered a brain injury so severe that he spent three months in a coma. At first he was paralysed down his right side. Today he carries out our conversation side-on because he is deaf in one ear. He is also due to have an operation to fix long-term double vision, but otherwise he is remarkably healthy.

‘At the time it was catastrophic, but I have made an extraordinary recovery. There are many reasons for this but one of them is certainly running,’ he says. ‘Exercise helps your brain to regenerate and start making connections again.’ A sailor and rider as a younger man, his doctors encouraged him to take up running, which he began with short plods around his local graveyard. Eleven years after his accident he completed his first half marathon.

Now he has the rest of Britain’s coast to run, and thanks to his enthusiasm this year, he’s been charged with finding a sponsor and putting together a team for a bigger GB presence at the 2024 Plogging Championships. Does anyone else fancy tidying up Milan?