The Great Trash Bag Experiment

Yesterday I bought a box of tall kitchen trash bags and spent a couple of relaxing hours strolling among the picnickers at Dolores Park and giving them away.

I had a lot of fun (I’ve never been one of the “sit back, drink beer, and get a tan” types — not that there’s anything wrong with that) and managed to get rid of 42 of my original 45 bags.

Reactions were varied but consistently positive. I got a lot of compliments about my karma. Often, the person I made eye contact with would reflexively decline — we are trained by the city to be suspicious of anything freely offered by a stranger — but then, after a beat, another in their group would say, “Actually, I’ll take one, thanks.”

Also, lots of people said, “Thanks, we’re good,” and gestured to their grocery bag or whatever; with at least a few of these people I’d like to think that my asking them helped remind them to pick up after themselves when they left, when they might otherwise have been too drunk or stoned or dehydrated to follow their natural, honest, original intention to leave no trace.

I tried very hard not to be a bully. My theme was, “I’m offering these bags if you want them,” implying that of course you want to clean up after yourself, and maybe you just generated a bit more trash than you expected, which is totally normal. Here are some of my pitch lines:

“Free trash bags, no strings attached. Except for the drawstrings.” (Yeah, I know, a total groaner. I abandoned this one pretty quickly.)

“I’m giving away trash bags!” (I learned that “free” is kind of a turnoff, probably since people using the word “free” these days usually don’t mean it. “giving away” or “anybody want” worked better.)

“Lonely trash bags, looking for love! And trash.”

In addition to the “stroll around and yell” technique, I would also approach big groups and make eye contact with one or more partiers and engage with them directly. Some of my opening lines:

“Need any extra garbage bags?” (This was good for BBQs since it presumes that they already want to clean up after themselves but just didn’t bring quite enough bags. A lot of people here said, “We’ve got some, but we can always use more.” Total face saving maneuver!)

“Want a big trash bag to put all your little trash bags in?” (This worked for the groups of 2 or 3 people who had already stuffed their to-go bags and strewn them around in front of them. I can just imagine how tempting it would be to wander off and forget them, a little imp on your shoulder whispering, “You’ve already done most of the cleanup…”)

very similar to cleaning up after yourself

But wait. If this is truly an experiment, let’s do some science. I had three initial hypotheses:

  1. That I could overcome my stage fright and people’s natural mistrust and mange to get rid of most of the bags
  2. That people would use these bags to remove trash from the park
  3. That the exercise would at least make a dent in the amount of trash left over in the park the next morning

Hypothesis 1 was confirmed on the spot.

I confirmed Hypothesis 2 by getting out to the park before 7 am and snooping in the trash cans along Dolores. I saw several tell-tale red drawstrings. Eureka!

Hypothesis 3 is difficult to confirm because we don’t have a good record of post-sunny-holiday-weekend trash levels — let alone a unit of measurement — but I have two subjective reports. One is my own (totally suspect, I know) — despite a couple of annoying piles near the former horrible green box, the lawn looked pretty good. And I chatted with David, the park’s only full-time gardener, and he said, “You know, it’s a lot better than it could be,” and “After a day like yesterday [Slip and slide!] it’s usually much worse.”

My favorite story of the day is when I approached a teenage boy, smoking and drinking and standing around with his buddies. I offered him a bag, and he took it as a challenge: “I’ll take your bag if you give me a cigarette.” We negotiated a bit more and he offered, “If you get me a cigarette, I’ll clean up all this trash around here.” How could I say no to that? It’s been a while since I was a smoker, but I haven’t forgotten how to bum a smoke. I came back a few minutes later with a pristine Parliament. He was already smoking a different one, but he honored our arrangement, with interest: he took the bag and started asking people at blankets nearby if they had any trash for him! His friends started to mock him — “Hey, Jessie, you got a job now?” — but he was unfazed. I pointed out to them that he had found a good way to meet girls — he had just gotten a nice smile from a bikini-clad beauty — and they fell into awed silence.

About Alex Chaffee

Dolores Park Volunteer, dog owner, park lover, coder.
5 comments
AlexChaffee
AlexChaffee

FYI, we're going to be trying the experiment again, this Saturday at 1:00, with DPW branded bags and more people. Come join!

William Pietri
William Pietri

That's great! Makes me want to try the same thing.

Chalkman
Chalkman

Deeds, not words, awesome!

roblord
roblord

+1 Great initiative Alex!

Dav Yaginuma
Dav Yaginuma

That's an awesome thing you've done there. Alex.

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