Making A Difference In the Arizona Desert

The BlueCommunities initiative of Plastic Oceans International is taking its message of community engagement and sustainability to the desert of Arizona.

When community activist Byron Román first posted his #trashtagchallenge on the internet in March 2019, he thought it would inspire maybe one or two of his friends to help clean up their communities. Little did he know that millions would be inspired to start a wave of cleanups around the world and that he would later found an organization devoted to cleaning up his own community. “People want to help out,” Román notes, but “they just don’t know where to start.”

Planet A Challenge is a social impact organization based in Phoenix, Arizona, and was formed during the summer of 2020 by Román and his partners Ana Benavides-Victors and Patty Anderson. They are dedicated not only to cleaning up trash in the Phoenix area, but also to empowering locals to take ownership of their communities – classic BlueCommunities values, as it turns out.

Planet a Challenge

Planet A Challenge founders (L to R): Ana Benavides-Victors, Byron Román and Patty Anderson.

Because Planet A Challenge operates in arid Arizona, and primarily tackles environmental issues on land, it is perhaps not what people would think of as a traditional BlueCommunities location, which are often located near the coast or other prominent bodies of water. However, as Tod Hardin, Plastic Ocean’s Chief Operating Officer, has noted, Arizona has a long history of being influenced by waterways, including the Colorado and Gila Rivers — even if many of those river beds are dried up seasonally.

“Planet A is fully aligned with the BlueCommunities belief that localized actions are the ‘building blocks’ required to bring about broader socioeconomic and environmental change,” said Hardin. “We are honored to have them within this initiative. Their actions and mission are exactly what we look for.”

Román explained that change has to happen gradually: “…because once it does, those who participate in environmental cleanup efforts will ‘take ownership’ of their communities, have pride in those communities, and defend and extend the investment they have made.” 

Román is a military veteran and one-time loan officer who is filled with energy and insists on sipping hot coffee even on Phoenix’s most blazingly hot summer days. And while others may have been content with the success of the #trashtagchallenge, Román is not the kind of person to rest on his laurels. 

The seeds of Planet A Challenge were planted in the summer of 2020, when Román noticed the profusion of water bottles littering a trail that he was hiking with friends. He recruited a number of his friends from the veteran community to do a “trashtag cleanup” on World Cleanup Day, and he suddenly saw a means to extend his social media success into action.  Following these personal forays into environmental cleanup, Román realized that there was “more that needed to be done, and maybe this is what I need to be doing, rather than, you know, that old waiting for someone else to come up with the answer.” 

Planet A Challenge phoenix

The Planet A Challenge team hard at work on a cleanup.

Following Román’s summer epiphany, the plans for Planet A Challenge quickly fell into place. After joining forces with Benavides-Victors and Anderson, the trio’s first task was to decide on a name that telegraphed the high stakes of their organizational mission. 

“The short story behind [the name of] Planet A,” as Román explains, is that “we don’t have a Planet B.” Since then, the organization has held cleanup events in Tempe Town Lake and Avondale, Arizona and has plans to expand to other parts of Phoenix and the surrounding communities. Román hopes that the organization’s efforts, and particularly its emphasis on community engagement, will put pressure on local municipalities to play their own role in keeping the area clean.  

“Sure BlueCommunities was at least initially about water-facing programs,” says Tod Hardin, “but we soon realized that there are communities everywhere working hard to make change happen, and that they are, of course, all linked by core values of local activism, community-engaged actions and leading by example. There is not a human alive who can say they are not dependent on clean water; on healthy waterways. We’re all in this together.”

Currently part of the writing team at Ninth Wave Global, Caroline Arena is a US-based freelance writer focused on social and environmental stories.