Trash-Spotting: A Cheat Sheet

That moment when you visually scan the surrounding area, trash bag in hand, and realize you have no idea where to start.


Pre-cleanup anxiety is a real thing – at least it is for me. Over the weekend we completed our 30th Daily Cleanup of the season, and I still get the occasional feeling of being overwhelmed when first stepping foot onto a new cleanup site. Whether I’m unfamiliar with the location’s layout or simply dumbfounded by the amount of trash in the area, it’s not uncommon for me to need to take a step back and a deep breath before embarking on my daily journey.

I recognize this response in other volunteers often, especially first-timers, but there’s no reason to be intimidated. As long as you exercise the same basic safety precautions that you would doing any outdoor activity, you literally cannot do it wrong. See a piece of trash; put it in the bag. Always remember that you’re out there, kicking butt, doing so much more than so many to improve the state of our community and planet.

As you get into the swing of it, you develop your own style. I feel like a machine as I toss my water bottle and some trash bags into my back pack, whip it around my shoulders, latch it in front with a carabiner, secure my fanny pack around my waist, zip my cell phone into the pouch, pull on my gloves, and march forth into the woods with a gardening trowel in my 5-gallon bucket. Don’t judge me (or the fanny pack). This is my routine – how I do my thing. It’s how I put on my game face in preparation to duke it out with the Trash Monster. Once you step out into the woods and start filling your trash bag with empty beer cans and candy wrappers, you’ll get into the groove, too.

Trash spotting is easy once you get the hang of it!

Unnatural colors like neons, bright blues, pure whites and blacks, prints and patterns, are dead giveaways for trash. If a color stands out and looks like it doesn’t belong, it probably doesn’t!

Shiny stuff is fairly uncommon in nature. Their sheen makes chip bags, cans, and plastics really easy to spot!

Rigid, unnatural shapes are also great indicators of foreign materials.


Sometimes our eyes fail us when litter hides beneath the brush and we must rely on our other senses. Luckily, the sound of a plastic bottle or aluminum can underfoot is unmistakable! And never underestimate the power of your intuition in seeking out garbage.

Maybe you are a prodigy when it comes to sleuthing out derelict shoes and abandoned plastic cutlery, maybe there’s trash everywhere so trusting your gut is bound to lead you to something, or maybe with time you begin to pick up on the kinds of places that trash accumulates and your instincts are guided by the patterns you observe.

Floodwaters that go down are notorious for leaving litter behind. Wind and gravity drive debris into ditches. Thick brush and downed trees act as a dam for traveling trash. There are lots of little tricks that you pick up on the more time you spend outdoors. These are just a few tips for anyone out there that wants to get started but isn’t quite sure how. You don’t have to be perfect; just by being out there you’re already doing great. If you feel uncomfortable in an unfamiliar or difficult to traverse area, utilize the buddy system. Do what works best for you and remember that something is always better than nothing!

If you have any trash cleaning tips or experiences you’d like to share, please do so in the comments! And if you don’t have any tips or experiences, get some! Join Up to Earth for one of our Daily Cleanups, which you can easily keep informed about by following our Facebook Page. If our schedules don’t align, take a few minutes of your downtime to clean up trash in your workplace parking lot or while taking a stroll around your block and tell us about it! We love to hear any and all litter removal stories, and sharing your experience is half the fun!



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