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Our february sustainability hero: alec clelland

Our february sustainability hero: alec clelland

Feb 12, 2020

You’ve probably seen this friendly face if you’ve volunteered at one of our cleanups; Alec is the Cleanup Operations Associate on United By Blue’s legendary Cleanups Crew. When he’s not traveling the country with sacks of garbage bags, Alec’s at the office coordinating cleanup logistics with the support of his adorable sidekick, Yolla (pronounced Yo-La; it’s Russian). Office rumor has it that Alec has over 10,000 plastic straws in storage from conducting his own personal cleanups around the Philadelphia area. If you have a good idea for what to do with those, let us know. 


We sat down with Alec to chat about growing up on one of the most polluted waterways in the US, on how mindfulness led him to change his habits, and how he stays positive when the bulk of his job is cleaning up other peoples’ messes. 


Alec, you grew up on the Delaware River, which tops lists as one of the country’s most polluted waterways. And now your career centers around cleaning those waterways. Did growing up there spark your interest in environmental action?


Completely. Any time I was down by the river, I would see garbage and pick some of it up. At the time though, I wasn’t necessarily picking it up as a way of protecting the environment—it was more about going down there and finding all these cool treasures. 


In hindsight, growing up by such a polluted river was a great opportunity to experience the effects of pollution firsthand, but it wasn’t until a few years ago when I started to make the connection. I started practicing meditation and yoga, which really helped me become more aware of my interaction with and impact on the earth. I started looking more closely at my own habits, which sparked my interest in environmental action. I used to blindly go into the grocery store without thinking twice about it, but when you take the time to notice what you’re buying, it’s crazy how much plastic there is. And then you think about seeing all that plastic in parks, along roadsides and in our rivers. Mindfulness really helped bridge that gap for me. 


So how did you go from bridging the gap and being more mindful of your habits, to becoming a bonafide cleanups coordinator? 


Growing up, my neighbor was actually the recycling coordinator for the county, so despite being surrounded by pollution, I always knew that you could have a career in environmental protection. As I grew older and more aware of my habits, my interest in doing something beneficial for the environment grew as well. My employer at the time offered a grant that employees could put towards community efforts, so I applied, and took on the project of building a community garden and organizing small scale park cleanups. That was the start of it all.


And how did you hear about United By Blue?

A friend of mine who already worked at United By Blue told me about the job opening. It’s funny, because I had been told about UBB by other friends beforeyou know, “You need to work for this company,” but I didn’t think there’d ever be a position for me. Then an internship on the cleanups crew opened up, and it was like the stars aligned. 


Right—because you are the perfect person for the job. And I’m wondering, how do you remain so positive? Your team goes out to clean up mounds of trash all over the country. The rest of us are aware of it, but we’re not facing it every day. How does it not drag you down?


Well, if you look at the numbersas a company, we’ve removed 2.5 million pounds of trash, but there are millions of pounds of trash that enter the oceans every weekit can be discouraging. So I think it’s all about having a “look forward more than you look back” mentality, and if we don’t help clean it up even a little bit, we run the risk that no one else will.


What’s the most fulfilling part of it? 


I would say it’s the impact you can have on people. It’s like my neighborjust knowing her and seeing the programs she put on to get people to recycle, it showed me that it doesn’t take that much to start a ripple effect that can make a real difference, and that’s what I love about being on the community cleanups team. To me, it’s not about focusing on all the garbage there is to clean up in the world, it’s about focusing on the people and how we can influence people to take better care of the environment and be more mindful of their habits.


And now that you’ve done this for a year, how do you see that idea in action? Do people leave cleanups with a different attitude about trash and toward their own habits? 


I think so. Most people tend to leave feeling encouraged, rather than discouraged from seeing all the trash we pick up. Someone once told me, “I’ve picked up 70 Dunkin’ Donuts cups today, and I’m never going to another Dunkin’ again”. Or chip bags. “I'll never buy another bag of chips.” Or a Capri Sun pouch. I think the repetition of seeing familiar trash along the waterways like that is really impactful for people. 


I think it also helps to know that other people that care too, and that they’re not alone. It could be discouraging if you were out there by yourself filling up bags of other peoples’ garbage, but when you make it a party, and you bring 200 people, it’s very different. 


So how do we keep up that momentum, after cleanups? How can we enact real change?


Even though our cleanups play a crucial role in environmental protection and conservation, I know we can do more. Even more than people changing their habits. While it’s great that people are looking inward and improving, we need to band together and put the blame on the right people and demand change. When we went to our World Oceans Day cleanup in DC, there were people that were policymakers at the UN, they had a party nearby, and they said, “Well, what are you guys doing? You should be going to your senators while you’re here, and your congressmen, and talking to them, pushing your beliefs down their throats.”

When we’re at a cleanup, it could be as simple as providing volunteers with the contact information of the local jurisdiction and encouraging them to send their mayors or governors an email explaining why and where we’d like to see more political action on environmental protection. If we end up having 200 people volunteer at a cleanup and 10% of them reach out, that’s way more than what we could do on our own. Giving people the right tools is key.