#ChalkOfShame: Unique plogging campaign creates awareness about effects of cigarette butts, tobacco litter

‘Smoking kills you’, Littering kills Planet!’ and ‘What a drag’ — such messages have become a common sight on the roads in Pune, thanks to ‘#ChalkOfShame’ an initiative by Puneri Ploggers, that aims to draw attention and create awareness about the rising problem of cigarette butts and tobacco litter in the city.

The pavements and sidewalks are full of such messages and slogans in English, Marathi and Hindi, written around circles made with colourful chalks.

According to reports, cigarette butts have toxic chemicals — such as arsenic and lead — which can contaminate water. The toxic exposure also causes harm to fish, as well as animals on land, who may end up swallowing them.

“Now this had a pinch of Puneri sarcasm in it. The slogans we write to spread our messages are quite similar to the sarcastic ‘Puneri Patya’- the message boards native Punekars put up everywhere to give out a message,” said Vivek Gurav, founder of Puneri Ploggers, a cleanliness-oriented community that started in September 2014. Gurav worked as a techie in a software company for four years before he decided to quit his job to become a “full-time environmentalist”.

Plogging, a combination of jogging and picking up litter, started in Sweden in 2016 and spread to other countries in the following years.

#ChalkOfShame: Unique plogging campaign creates awareness about effects of cigarette butts, tobacco litter ‘Do you have any shame?’ written in Marathi (Source: Pune Ploggers)

“In one year of my plogging experience, the majority of trash we collected was plastic. But the real problem were these very small looking yet extremely harmful for nature — cigarette butts. More than 100 thousand cigarette butts were collected in one year,” recalled Gurav, who is currently on a full-paid scholarship from University Of Bristol, UK to study climate science.

“Instead of picking them up we planned to talk about this issue,” he said.

The campaign, which started in October 2021, involves around 80-100 volunteers participating over the weekend during which the team:

*Spots cigarette butts on road
*Draws colourful circles around them.
*Numbers them.
*Draws creative illustrations on the footpath
*Writes messages and slogans.

“We call this #ChalkOfShame because it is a campaign to spread awareness and also shame those smokers who are irresponsibly littering with cigarette butts. We don’t want to comment on anyone’s personal choices, but if it’s harming environment, it’s a problem we will highlight. Smoking may be a personal choice but littering isn’t!” said Gurav, adding that the initiative recently completed its 50th #ChalkofShame activity and 238 Plogging Drives.

The initiative has a multi-pronged approach. “It uses environment-friendly chalk. It is a silent way of protesting acts of careless citizens, and unaware government not punishing smokers who smoke and litter at public places. It also is a way of promoting artistic instincts of volunteers which has made this campaign popular, since people feel engaged and enthusiastic while spreading awareness,” said Gurav, 26, who moved to Pune in 2014 for his Bachelor’s degree.

Vivek Gurav Vivek Gurav has been the brain behind Pune Ploggers’ #ChalkofShame campaign (Source: Vivek Gurav)

It was then that he realised rivers, especially, were polluted. “After a lot of interaction with my friends and youth in the city, I felt only government action won’t solve the problem. Instead of blaming authorities, if citizens standup for their rights, in this case their right to get clean air go breathe, clean water to drink and a sustainable environment for their future generations, only then will manmade problems get solved. Pune Ploggers was one such individual attempt from my personal routine of jogging which was converted into plogging. After a successful 30DaysPloggingChallenge I took up personally, I found a lot of friends who liked the idea and later joined me in this daily activity. Now it has transformed into a nation-wide community led initiative for sustainability,” expressed Gurav.

But has there been any tangible impact of the all-India initiative which also is active in cities like Mumbai, Nagpur, Nashik, Aurangabad, Patiala, Kanpur, Moradabad, Kolkata, Delhi and Odisha? “We have seen cigarette stall owners acting proactively and requesting customers to use trash bins. Since it’s a real time campaign, when we are there, they make an effort to reach the trash bin and dispose cigarette butts. They understand the campaign, smile and act the right away. It’s fun to watch them go extra mile,” he mentioned.

The community also has an ongoing anti-spitting campaign against gutka and/or tobacco spits which also involves drawing circles around such hotspots. “While we started this as a campaign to talk about cigarette butts, the Covid pandemic has helped us explore multiple avenues. We launched anti-spitting campaign, which got extended to one against tobacco spits,” said Gurav, adding that the aim is to “keep innovating the campaign for next one year”.

But, their success did not come without roadblocks. “We have received strange comments on volunteers, and have been reverse shamed for using chalk and vandalising public property. But, it is not a form of vandalism as chalk art stays only for few hours. Also, the pandemic added to our hardships since these cigarette butts may act as a source of infection for volunteers. However, we never stopped and it has been a consistent year of weekend drives,” said Gurav.

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