ExperimentI kept track of my trash for a week and realized America is built on garbage
We asked a friend to write down every last thing she threw away for a week and to think long and hard about it. This is her story.
My father always used to tell me this story about when he and my mother lived in the Back Bay of Boston in a basement apartment that was sinking a small amount every year. “It wasn’t much, but it was noticeable,” he told me. The reason it was (is) sinking is that much of the city of Boston is built on fill – unnecessary sand, gravel, and who knows what else, shoveled into Boston Harbor to create more land. I’ve always been confused as to why the colonial residents decided to create more land. Native ownership notwithstanding (as was the custom of the time), wasn’t there plenty of perfectly good land directly to the west?
When I was asked by this fine publication to keep track of what I threw away for a week and explain how I felt afterwards, I figured I was going to come out of my own garbage accounting smelling like roses. I’m a good little environmentalist. I bring my own bags to the store. I try not to be wasteful. I hope, with all my might, that no disposed items containing my own DNA are floating around in the Pacific on that massive floating garbage island. But as I tracked myself, I realized my garbage management is boring, stupid, and pointless.
No matter what any of us do, we all are standing on a useless pile of sinking garbage created by our ancestors for no plausible reason. Except, in this case, what’s sinking isn't land – it’s capitalism.
Q-tips and dental floss
day 1: Tuesday April 28th I throw away the same two things every morning: one Q-tip and one 2-foot long piece of dental floss. I also use, and therefore wash down the drain, small quantities of soap, facial scrub, and toothpaste.
The first question arises immediately: what exactly qualifies as waste? The word itself is first defined as “the act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.” It comes from the Latin vastus, which means unoccupied or uncultivated, and passed through French (a garbage language) on its way to English.
The last part of the English definition is the most problematic. For something to be used to a purpose, I have to be able to justify the necessity of it. Is floss necessary? Are my teeth? I could survive without them. What gives me the right to believe that I can use floss, the cottons and waxes of which took innumerable other resources to create, for five minutes and just throw it out? These sorts of questions bother me throughout the week.
Other things of note that I toss: egg shells, cat shit and piss, a tin can from some mackerel I ate in a salad. I feel like a nomad, dragging a bag of rubbish behind me.
Is floss necessary? Are my teeth? I could survive without them.
Low density polyethylene
day 2: Wednesday April 29th Today I dig out my reusable coffee mug so that I don’t have to use a paper cup from the coffee shop. As I walk down the street, I observe the spring flowers blooming, and criticize the petals they leave behind. Everything in nature makes waste. Flower petals are Mother Earth’s condom wrappers.
A biologist would say “The waste of the flower petals biodegrades into the soil, which creates food for scavenger insects and eventually nutrients for new plants to grow. This is a closed system, so its healthy.” What happens in the biosphere stays in the biosphere.
Normally I agree with established science but today I’m feeling contrary, and so I note that most of these particular petals will be swept into yard waste bags and left out for the Sanitation pickup just like human waste. We humans have the supernatural ability to mutate even the most simple processes of the earth by tying them up in our bondage gear of low density polyethylene. How grand.
When I get to work, I notice that my hand smells like rot and decay. Its my coffee mug – somehow, fetid water is seeping from its metal seams. There’s no obvious way to clean it, so I throw it away.
A small selection of other interesting things I threw away: a paper towel given to me with my purchase of an apple (?); the small foil tab from an aseptic package of coconut milk; the absurd over-packaging of a pair of Apple earbuds, which were bound in three separate types of plastic.
If 75% of the US recycled, it would be the equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the road each year.
↑ Data source
New types of garbage
day 3: Thursday April 30th I tell my brother about my problem of deciding what counts as garbage. He’s not helpful. “By that accounting, even ideas you forget are technically trash,” he suggests, cracking a fresh new can of worms and dumping them straight onto my mental compost heap. I laugh and tell him that I’m having a lot of fun thinking of new types of garbage.
Later, I realize that this is a particular type of Americanization. Who but someone absorbed in a system built wholly upon waste would find joy in developing new types? I am not the "Native American" from the 1970s commercial who sheds a tear while seeing his land covered by a mountain of garbage – I am the garbage he’s staring at, and I like it. How did I become this way?
Today I purchase a salad from a bakery, and am therefore required to dispose of not only the plastic container, but also the small container for the salad’s dressing, a waxed paper bag that contained two slices of bread to go with the salad, and a plastic fork that I realized later was redundant, since I had a perfectly good and clean metal fork in my bag. As I left, two separate employees looked at my hands, piled high with future-waste, and asked if I needed a plastic bag.
Some other garbage of interest: cat food cans, the plastic and paper used to give me my things from the dry cleaner, the weird maxi-pad that comes in the bottom of a raw chicken.
I was born on a mountain of trash
day 4: Friday May 1 On Friday I’m feeling a little bit less dour, and I don’t throw away anything at work with the exception of a banana peel and some bad ideas. After, we attend a baseball game (Let’s Go Mets). 30,000 people in one place, creating garbage together. The family sitting in front of us has adorable children who require at least four separate trips to the concession; their refuse piles up on the ground in front of them, and stays when they leave in the sixth inning.
We purchase and therefore throw away the wrappings of two pretzels and a box of popcorn. I can’t help but compound the waste of my own consumption in my head. The pretzels are made from wheat and the popcorn from corn. Each of those crops uses water and nitrogen as they grow, and leave plant carcasses to be disposed of when they are harvested. And the people who grow grain make their own wastes – I imagine random cans of Dr. Pepper filling a garbage can in the middle of a field. All this trash so I can eat something I shouldn’t inside a palace of conspicuous grandiosity.
There’s nothing in America that isn’t built upon a mountain of garbage.
When we went out for dinner after, I asked for a glass of water, emptied it, and asked for more. Instead of refilling my glass, the waitress brought me a new one, with a new plastic bendy straw. The straw’s mouth was the eye of a reedy cyclops, and I could feel its empty gaze burning into the center of my forehead.
30,000 people in one place, creating garbage together.
Individual packets of sugar
day 5-6: Saturday May 2 & Sunday May 3 Over the weekend my activities include repotting some plants and beginning the long and arduous process of cleaning out my fridge over a time of neglect. This causes most of my garbage to be organic material – stuff that either could be composted or was already compost.
There’s this entire narrative of urban garbage disposal that strikes me as being a little backwards. The story goes like this: first, we dumped our garbage in the ocean, until the early 1900s. When that became unacceptable, we buried it under various less cool parts of the city, until it became clear that all parts of the city have the potential to become cool. Then, we started selling it to the owners of wastelands; we trucked it out to their spots and buried it there. That wasn't chill anymore, so we had to find ways to reduce volume by recycling and composting. That involved trucking the same amount of stuff somewhere, but instead of paying for its burial, we sold it to farms and recyclers. If no one bought it, it got buried with the rest.
Everyone wants to give you a bag for your items, because capitalism’s garbage perpetuation is inherently shameful, and must be shielded from UV rays.
But this timeline doesn’t match the changing nature of our garbage. When we dumped everything in the ocean, there was no plastic, and paper still had value. Garbage was mostly biodegradable because we had not yet figured out how to subvert these processes of nature. Dumping it in the ocean was unsanitary, sure, and definitely unsightly, but eventually the ocean would win over anything we threw into it. This is no longer the case.
Now that trash itself is a commercial commodity, with a per-weight value and an expanding marketplace resonance, it has also become a good investment. As I go through my errands, it feels like there are items forced upon me that are created just to be thrown away and fill a quota of necessary garbage creation. It’s impossible to turn off receipt printers at the pharmacy and the ink is made of poison. Fruit skins are covered in plastic-coated stickers. Everyone wants to give you a bag for your items, because capitalism’s garbage perpetuation is inherently shameful, and must be shielded from UV rays.
One notable garbage incident: I return to the cafe with my refillable mug and receive a quizzical look from the counterperson. However, I still have to rip open individual packets to get any sugar.
List of the items that was thashed:
one Q-tip, a piece of dental floss
toiletries (used tooth paste, soap, face scrub), egg shells, cat shit and piss, a tin can (that previously held mackerels), a paper towel, a small foil tab from a package of coconut milk, waste from the packaging of a pair of apple earbuds, plastic container (from salad), small container of salad dressing, a plastic fork, cat food cans, the plastic and paper from dry cleaning, the maxi-pad looking string from inside a raw chicken, banana peel, the wrappings from two baseball stadium pretzels, a box of popcorn, a paper cup
We breathe it in
day 7: Monday May 4 On the last day of my recording, there is a fire down the street from my home, and I can smell it coming in through the windows. I should be sad that someone might be losing their house, but instead all I can think of is how their garbage is being incinerated and added to their air. Its mass is lessened, but now we breathe it in.
The only way to remove garbage from America is to remove the incentive to dispose. The individual is hopeless when it comes to reducing garbage consumption – reduce, reuse, recycle is a lie, just like “going green,” fed to us by an industry that wants to make its consumers feel great about what they toss. Your eco-holiness is a consumable just like any other, meaning that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The only way out is through revolution.
Today I forgot my reusable coffee mug, so I just got the paper cup, and it was fine.