Bag lady

One week of carrying my own trash

Rosie Blake gives Kat Kerlin a curious look as Kerlin carries her trash bag down the street.

Rosie Blake gives Kat Kerlin a curious look as Kerlin carries her trash bag down the street.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

If you had to carry around the trash you produced, would it change your habits?

That’s what I set out to discover when I challenged myself to one week of doing just that. The short answer is, yes.

I didn’t choose a low-key week to do this experiment. Me and my growing bag not only went to work together, we also attended a bridal shower; a house-warming party; lunch and coffee with friends; went out for sushi, and we would have even enjoyed a Reno Phil concert together had I not (perhaps subconsciously-on-purpose) conveniently forgotten to bring it along as I dashed out the door. Oh, what times we’ve had.

For seven days, every piece of paper, empty milk carton, egg carton, wine bottle and shampoo bottle went into my garbage bag, which I then carried in a canvas bag to look at least a little less obvious. If you think the canvas bag is a cop-out, talk to me after you’ve carried your trash for a week. There were a couple of things I didn’t carry, for reasons I hope are self-evident: used toilet paper and cat litter.

I also decided to carry things I typically recycle because recycling uses resources, too. As much as possible, the burden in the bag should represent the burden to the environment, I reasoned, which challenged me to cut back on total waste, not just non-recyclable waste.

Food is a big part of the waste stream, so after carrying orange peels, corn husks and coffee grinds in an old airtight coffee can for a day, I decided to do what I should have done years ago: create a compost pile. It’s not a great compost pile. It’s basically an unused garbage can with a lid, but it’s a start I intend to improve upon.

I’d already made some changes to reduce waste this year, like taking canvas bags to the grocers rather than using plastic ones, and I don’t eat a lot of heavily packaged foods, anyway. But milk cartons, canned beans and cereal boxes add up. Changes during the “Bag Lady Challenge” included adopting a near zero-waste lunch, with a sandwich in a reusable container and fruit, the remains of which went into the compost. That was easy. I also used cloth towels or the air to dry my hands and dishes rather than paper towels. When shopping, I tried to choose things with little to no packaging, foregoing the yogurt cups I usually buy, for instance. These are all things I could continue to do even without a big bag on my back.

By day five, no one had said anything about the bulging bag, though I noticed some funny looks. Like a woman still trying to hide her pregnancy eight months in, my bag was reaching unavoidably noticeable proportions. While it could’ve been worse, it was round, bumping into things and all around awkward.

I’m glad my bag-carrying days are over, but it served its purpose. I recommend it for anyone to try, if not for a week, at least for a couple of days. It brings the issue of waste, reusing and consumption to the forefront of the mind many times a day in a way an article or environmental campaign can’t.

Bagging the burden myself forced me to rethink how I consume and brought about small habit changes I’d been meaning to make anyway. Everyone knows trash is a part of daily life—carrying it made me realize just how much.