The Trash Bag Challenge is a social media trend that started with a simple ‘Before and After’ pic. Along with the punny hashtag #trashtag, it has effectively inspired people from all over the world to get outside and collect trash.
It’s one of the few internet challenges I can actually get behind. I’m all for it because it a) gets people outside and b) motivates them to clean up.
That being said, I’ve noticed a few shortcomings of the current challenge and wanted to toss in my two cents. Bare with me for a few because these four tips are all about maximizing on the good karma that comes with cleaning up the environment.
If you have other ideas, I want to read all about them in the comments.
1. Sort the Trash
I can’t tell you how many Trash Bag Challenge pics I’ve seen where everything collected is considered “trash.” As a gentle reminder, plastic water bottles are not trash. Cardboard pizza boxes are not trash. Soda cans are not trash. In fact, the outstanding majority of items collected from our road sides, beaches, and parks are not trash—they’re recyclables.
Now, I know it’s awkward to walk around with bags for trashing, recycling, and composting, so here’s what I’m suggesting for your next Trash Bag Challenge: Get organized.
If you’re going solo, focus on cleaning up the recyclable content first. Tie up the bag and place it to the side while you go over the same area with a trash bag in hand. At home, you can further sort the recyclables into plastics and paper.
If you’re going out as a team, designate people for trash, recyclables, and compostables.
This sorting strategy ensures you’re making the most of your time and preventing recyclables from landfills.
2. Stick Close to Home
The viral nature of the Trash Bag Challenge lends itself to people travelling to picturesque places overrun with trash in pursuit of the perfect Instagram pic. While these spaces certainly need our love, so do our neighbourhoods.
Pick a route that covers a few kilometers in your area and take a walk around. What do you see? In my own neighbourhood, I’ve found everything from cigarette butts to Happy Meal boxes to plastic yogurt cups. You’d be surprised how many recyclables drift off in the wind before roadside pickup and how many people still toss trash out their windows while driving.
You might not end up with dozens of bags of trash or a backdrop suitable for a background, but you will do your part to clean up your own neighbourhood. Oftentimes, these are some of the most neglected areas because so many of us move through them on autopilot due to our daily routines. We stop noticing the pollution in our areas as we grow accustom to a certain level of trash.
If we all stick close to home and clean our own neighbourhoods, every place—including those picturesque shorelines and mountain trails—will be less polluted.
3. Make the Trash Bag Challenge a Routine
Like any social media challenge, the Trash Bag Challenge will fade from our feeds. What we will be left with is the everyday people who were out cleaning up trash before it was cool, but guess what? This small population of committed people is not enough to keep our environment and public spaces clean. Why? Because unfortunately, other people are hard-pressed to change their ways, even when looking down the road at a climate disaster. There will be more trash discarded. It will continue to pile up and pollute waterways, wildlife and wild spaces, and marine species.
I challenge everyone who did the Trash Bag Challenge to be the person your Instagram followers think you are and get outside and collect trash on a regular basis. Keep these spaces clean for more than a day or two. The benefit isn’t just a better view, but a healthier home for us all, and a regular and free way to exercise.
4. Put the Phone Down
By all means, take your Trash Bag Challenge pic at the end of your clean-up and post up a storm. Tell everyone you spent some time doing some good, and tell them every single time you do so. I truly believe this kind of in-your-face activism does inspire others. If it didn’t, the Trash Bag Challenge wouldn’t have spread like wildfire.
However, while you’re scouring your neighbourhood for trash, put your phone down and be present. This allows you to see smaller items of trash you would otherwise miss. It also prevents accidents from happening. While you may not see trash collection as a dangerous activity, it does pose certain risks—including stepping on and mindlessly grabbing discarded needles, slipping down muddy slopes, and cutting yourself on broken glass. In this same vein, please wear thick gloves and proper shoes.
Try to see this Trash Bag Challenge as more than a photo or video opportunity for your followers and instead try to connect with the spaces you’re cleaning. When all is said and done, then you can pat yourself on the back with a Trash Bag Challenge pic.