Ken and his father-in-law, John Tierney. Photo by Melissa O’Brien

When pulling out of the News offices recently I noticed two gentleman walking along Greenbush Road wearing unusual-looking packs on their backs and picking up trash. Always the curiouser, I flagged them down to find out what they were up to. I learned a wonderful thing that day, that Charlotter Ken Spencer had designed and created a backpack for litter pick-up, and, of course, I wanted to know more. Here is our recent Q & A.

Melissa: How did this whole idea start?
Ken: This idea came to me walking on Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach on summer mornings. I used to head out a few miles to the inlet for a swim at sunrise and became addicted to the quiet, beauty, wild surf and untamed nature. The random balloons, plastic bottles and litter from the previous nights’ parties just frustrated me. I started picking up litter there and that carried over to life at home in Charlotte. Carrying a trash bag was just esthetically a nightmare: the noise, the look, the uneven weight, the brushing into my leg. I decided I wanted a pack.

What were the first steps in the process?
The next step was trying an Adirondack pack basket, which I picked for its structure, open top and beauty. But the shape was wrong, the hole on top too small and tilting down and back from your shoulders. The bow in the middle trapped litter and made it hard to remove what I had collected. So I decided to design my own pack.

Who is manufacturing the pack?
I hired Paul Henning in Burlington to help me design a pack to be strong, affordable and shaped correctly to make it easy to toss litter in. We worked together for a year or more, trying metal and wood and shapes that you can see on my site planetpeople.org.

What changes have you had to make to the pack after using it for a while?
We used canvas and leather, snaps and hinges. We settled on a molded plastic back piece so the body would be protected from anything sharp. We inserted simple hoops into that to create the shape and hung a waterproof satchel in the hoops to prevent anything wet from staining the bag or wearer. That satchel was designed to perfectly fit a standard trash bag, which stretches over the hoop frame on top. 

In terms of manufacturing, Paul shared a connection in Shenzhen, China, and I started working with a fellow there named Chunchun. He’s taught me all about tooling costs to make the mold to produce a product, shipping costs and how imports work. I might visit his factory, but for now, he gave me great references in the U.S. I feel this product needs to be inexpensive because people have never bought a pack to pick up litter. Plus, I want everyone in the world to be able to afford a Planet Pack. 

Do you see roadside trash as a growing problem?
For me, this is not about solving the litter problem by picking up. It’s about changing the way people think about litter and changing the throw-away culture. I want to share with people the good feeling you get when you take care of your neighborhood, when you get out and walk, when your neighbors notice what you’re doing. When I pick up, people honk, they wave.

I see Planet Pack in schools. I’d like to be able to give free packs to classrooms that collect 500 pounds of litter. I see high school outing clubs and environmental groups sharing Planet Packs and setting an example for their peers. I see millennials hankering for something that makes a difference and baby boomers needing to walk more and alleviate their stresses. I also see an untapped resource in senior centers and retirement communities with an older generation of people needing a sense of purpose. Everyone should be walking, so why not pick up litter? 

Right now, I’m tailoring the bag to make it more sleek and less pouchy. We’re moving the seam to improve the space on the back so I can add a high visibility reflective logo. I plan to partner and co-brand in some way with environmental groups and nonprofits that share my mission of healthier people and a healthier planet.

What have been the greatest obstacles to getting this thing out in the world?
The biggest obstacle is that this has never been invented until now, so it’s novel. Folks have never bought something designed to pick up litter, and most folks don’t think or know yet that they might like picking up litter. I’m out there a few times a week showing them it’s fun. I’ve spent a lot of time and resources making the prototype, and there’s so much I want to do, but I work full time as a cardiac sonographer and R.N. at Porter Hospital. I’d love to be able focus on Planet Pack.

What’s your vision for the future of the pack?
I think the pack can be used by anyone of any generation and is good for health and good for community. When I walk with it, I feel terrific—I literally leave my neighborhood better and safer. People constantly give me feedback, and it’s super reinforcing.

I’m pretty motivated to make this the most original holiday gift that ever was. It will cost less than $50 and the plan is that it changes the world, one neighborhood at a time.