A man who started picking up litter to improve his mental health is inspiring the next generation of environmentalists.

32-year-old Mike Scotland, a health and safety officer from Bucksburn, a suburb of Aberdeen, Scotland, is leading the charge in his efforts to clean the city, one bin bag at a time.

Mike is a passionate mental health advocate and motivational speaker who is well-known in the northeast for his community clean-ups, which have brought together the people of Bucksburn to tackle Aberdeen’s litter problem head-on.

Mike Scotland is a mental health and environmental ambassador. Photo: Mike Scotland

It was in his late 20s that Mike began suffering from depression. His mental health took a turn for the worse and at his lowest point, he found himself on the bank of the River Don in Aberdeenshire contemplating taking his life.  

“I was in a really dark place,” Mike said. “I was saved by a phone call that stopped me there and then—but after that, whenever I’d walk past that area, I felt like a dark shadow was haunting me.

“I was so consumed with my own thoughts, I was almost oblivious to the litter that surrounded me as I tried to deal with the trash that built up in my own head.”

During subsequent visits to the River Don, Mike noticed the litter that had accumulated on the bank, prompting him to take action. 

“One day, I took three black bags and went down to the riverside and just started picking up litter.

“There was a person on a bike that stopped me and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was litter-picking and he asked if I wanted a hand.

“He parked his bike, and me and this guy ended up spending the next couple of hours picking up litter together and having the most open and honest chats about anything and everything.”

The pair ended up filling three black bags of rubbish, although it barely scratched the surface as the River Don had been used as a dumping ground for decades.

Mike vowed to the stranger to start his own litter-picking group, prompting him to set up Community cleanUP, an initiative that aims to clean up Aberdeen while also encouraging people to engage in important conversations about their mental health. 

Mike alongside members of Community cleanUP. Photo: Mike Scotland

The group aims to inspire the next generation to care for the environment and stop littering.

Reflecting on the first session of Community cleanUp, Mike said, “There were about four to six people that showed up, but we ended up cleaning up over 300 kg of litter over a couple of hours” – the equivalent weight of a mountain zebra. 

The following weekend, ten people showed up and the group doubled their rubbish collection efforts. So far, Community cleanUP has collected nearly 13,500 kg of litter and retrieved 2,500 kg of metal from the riverbed. 

A breakthrough came when the group spotted otters in River Don swim upstream for the first time in 40 years. 

“We transformed that whole area as a community – we gave it life again,” Mike said. 

Mike is now a father of three and regularly picks up litter with his children. In fact, it’s become an opportunity for the Scotland family to bond.

Mike’s five-year-old son Lucio has certainly followed in his dad’s footsteps, picking up his first piece of trash as a toddler. 

“I remember taking my son to the park when he was 18 months old, and he spotted an empty bottle. Even then, he went and picked it up and put it in the bin.

Mike is a role model for his children who have taken up litter-picking. Photo: Mike Scotland

For the Scotland family, picking up litter has become an important aspect of their family outings and has helped Mike and his partner Nikki keep the kids off their devices and outdoors connecting with nature.  

“We’d go out walking and exploring. It gave us a chance to explore nature, the forest, river, butterflies, insects, animals, and all sorts. 

“And it wasn’t just cleaning, it was all about education. It gave us time to spend with each other. It was a son and dad thing. Lucio still does his litter-picking whenever we get a chance.”

Keen to keep Lucio engaged in litter-picking, Mike thought of an ingenious way to make the activity more fun. 

“One of the things we used to do as father and son was go out dressed as Batman and ‘fight the litter’. It’s a great way to get him outside and teach him about the environment.”

Mike motivated his son to pick up litter by dressing up as Batman. Photo: Mike Scotland

In the wake of Storm Babet, a cyclone which devastated large parts of northern and western Europe in October 2023, Mike organised the biggest-ever cleanup Aberdeen has seen in a bid to get rid of the litter that the storm had washed up. 

“I’d never seen anything like it. My son couldn’t understand why people were just walking past it, and he really wanted to help clean it up. 

“He asked if I could find people to help us, so I went on Facebook and did a live video showing everyone the mess that was down there, and I asked for help. Within about 45 minutes, there were 25 people who’d come down to help.”

After speaking to the local media, 350 people went along to the cleanup and with everybody’s collective efforts they managed to remove over 400 bags of debris from the streets of Aberdeen. 

Mike was heartened by the way the community came together and was encouraged to see so many people turn up in the spirit of protecting the environment. 

Mike hopes to be a beacon to the next generation. Photo: Mike Scotland

“The environment’s one thing, but it’s also such a good way to bring everyone down as equals”, Mike said.

“I think it brings people back down to earth and to the reality that it’s our planet, and we all need to look after it in some form, it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s about engaging with your local communities and others.

“I find it so inspiring and uplifting the people you meet just from doing it.”

Mike expressed how proud he was of his children for the hard work they’ve done and said that their commitment to the cause has given him hope for the future. 

“For me as a parent, it’s really uplifting to see them excited to make a difference. It’s second nature to them now.

“Their mindset is focused on doing a good thing for the right reasons. They’re not doing it for attention or praise, they’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

Litter-picking has become an important part of the Scotlands’ family life. Photo: Mike Scotland

“Over time, it should hopefully reduce the amount of people littering in the first place. It’s a long goal. I don’t know if I’ll achieve it in my lifetime, but I’ll certainly try my best.”

Nikki revealed that one of the non-negotiables when leaving the house is a litter picker.

“It goes everywhere with us. It’s just the norm for us now,” she said. 

Similar to Mike, Nikki works in the health and safety industry, but specialises in renewable energy. 

She first learned about Mike from seeing his posts on LinkedIn. After travelling to Aberdeen for work, Nikki was matched with Mike on a dating site in a serendipitous turn of events.

Nikki followed Mike on LinkedIn and soon after they matched on a dating site. Photo: Mike Scotland

“That’s why I was sort of really drawn to him,” she said. “I had seen a lot of his posts. The whole mental health thing, I think not a lot of people speak about that, so for me he seemed really open and came across as a really good dad. 

“Just all the traits and characteristics you would want in somebody.”

Nikki noted how litter picking has helped reduce her kids’ screen time and made her take more pride in her surroundings.

“It’s just an all-round positive to be out doing something for the environment and having that walking family time. It takes kids away from their iPads and computers. 

“The more you walk and the more litter-picking you see, it encourages you to keep going. You do naturally become prouder of your area.”

Nikki has called her partner an inspiration. Photo: Mike Scotland

Reflecting on the impact Mike has had on the community and the influence he’s had on their children, Nikki said, “I’m totally inspired by what Mike does to ingrain that into our own kids. We can react to the litter we’ve got now but we can also prevent it.”

“Mike does it for community reasons and cleaning up the environment, but I think sometimes he forgets how much he inspires people as well. He’s a very positive person and he’s a very inspirational person, even to me as his partner.

“And I know that he’ll be a total inspiration to his kids. They follow in his footsteps.”

Find out more about Community cleanUP here.

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Zayna is a Content Editor at Salesforce Ben, a Freelance Writer at LeadGeneratorsDigital, and a Contributing Writer at Good News Shared. She hopes to cast light on the ripple effect of small acts of kindness that lead to great waves of change.

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