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Two large plastic jugs labeled Naked Juice.  One metal can labeled Tongol Tuna.  Wads of paper towel.  Discarded tissues.  One glass jar labeled “Spirulina Flakes.”  One glass jar labeled “Grey Poupon.”  Four 23.5 oz. plastic bottles labeled “Natural Mountain Spring Water.”  Two empty plastic bottles from Dragon Herbs.  Catalogues: Victoria’s Secret, Land’s End, The Company Store, Garnet Hill, Front Gate, Magellan’s, The Sharper Image, Brookstone, J.C. Penny’s, J. Jill, Chico’s Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Eddie Bauer, Crate and Barrel, Gardens Alive, Calyx & Corolla, Harry & David.  Fundraising solicitations from the World Wildlife Fund, the American Cancer Society, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California State Parks, Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Los Angeles Mission, NOW, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Democratic Party.  Credit offers (new or expanded credit) from Bank of America (3), Citibank (1), Chase (3), Advanta (1), CapitalOne (1), RBS (1), and the Discover Card (1). Nine offers of mortgage refinancing from miscellaneous lenders.  Many printed notices (postcards, brochures, flyers, catalogues) of museum exhibits, concerts, theater and dance performances.  One cardboard box and assorted packaging from books shipped from Amazon.com.  Envelopes and inserts from various bills paid.  Obsolete letters, business correspondence, manuscripts, and client reports from a recent purge of my desk.  Miscellaneous packaging.  One pound of confetti from the shredder.  Seven days of the Los Angeles Times, three still in the plastic seal in which they were tossed over my gate.

This is the detritus of my week.  These are only the recyclables.

***

The average American throws away 4.4 pounds of trash a day, or almost 1500 pounds per year.

***

I’m usually not inclined to mourn the fact that I have no husband.  I’m over fifty, and I never have had one.  While I can find a man perfectly pleasant to talk to on an occasional basis, I’ve never had the proclivity to actually live with one.  I’m missing the gene that induces fantasies of wearing a white dress and pledging to obey. I’m certainly lacking the temperament necessary to be a wife, with all the deference and ego-stroking and subtle manipulation this role seems to require.

Still, one of the few times I wish for a husband is on trash night.  Once a week, usually in the dark after a twelve-plus-hour-day, I drag my plastic bins—brown for trash, blue for recycling, green for garden waste—down my long driveway to the curb.  It’s not that difficult, but it’s difficult enough—the bins are heavily laden and cumbersome on their two wheels.  They have to be lifted over the bumps in the driveway; sometimes they want to tip over sideways if I am careless steering them.  It is at these times I find myself longing for someone to perform this task for me.

It isn’t simple laziness that makes me want to divest this chore.  Nor is it seeing myself as a princess who shouldn’t get her hands dirty.  It is something more American in character, I think: The desire not to deal with those things with which we feel finished.  A will to move on from what’s no longer useful.  A need to distance ourselves from what we have cast off.

***

In 1995 27% of the United States’ food supply spoiled or went unused (48,000,000 tons).

***

In 1962, my mother had a husband (her second) but he wasn’t particularly reliable about performing his domestic duties.  I can remember a night when I was about eight; my mother was beside herself to discover that, once more, the trashcans had not been set out in the street for pick-up.  To staunch her fury, she and I began to make up a little song to an old Vaudeville tune:

Hello, Arthur, hello,
please take the garbage to the curb!
I’m shoutin’ ‘Hello, Arthur, hello,
please take the garbage to the curb.’

You didn’t take it last week, oh no, not at all;
if you don’t take it this week, we’ll have garbage wall to wall.
Hello, Arthur, hello,
please take the garbage to the curb!

Take out all the crackers, and empty cans of soup;
if you don’t take it this time then you’re really a poop!
Hello, Arthur, hello,
please take the garbage to the curb!

The newspapers are stacking, the cans and bottles too.
The Health Department’s calling; we’re really overdue.
Oh, hello, Arthur, hello
please take the garbage to the curb!

There were myriad verses, only a few of which I remember now, and they became progressively sillier as the sing-along continued.  We laughed until our sides hurt, until tears rolled down our cheeks.

1962.  Pre-feminism.  It wouldn’t have occurred to my mother—anymore than to my stepfather—that she could take the trash to the curb herself.  There must have been women living alone, even then—what did they do with their weekly trash?

Of course, my mother’s frustration was more deeply rooted than my stepfather’s failure to perform this household chore; he was unfaithful, he drank, he was prone to violence, he was profligate with money they didn’t have.  She must have had a sense that the “garbage” was piling up all around her, and if she didn’t attend to it she might, in fact, be buried alive.  The song was our way of taking out the trash.

***

The total amount of trash produced in the United States each day is 200 million tons.  Almost 1/3 of the waste generated in America is packaging.

***

An exhibit at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum focused on the “mysterious bog people,” those preserved human bodies found in sphagnum bogs in Northern Europe, Britain and Ireland.  Although the dark brown, leathery corpses held a creepy fascination, so too did the objects that had also been retrieved from the peat—flint and bronze axes, pottery, bronze swords, leather shoes, textiles, gold coins, jewelry, musical instruments and agricultural tools.  The text accompanying the exhibition hypothesized that these objects were sacred to people and held a ritual significance for them.

I didn’t think the archeologists had made their case.  “What if,” I said to Rose, “these were just things that didn’t sell at the garage sale?”

I could picture the aftermath of a long day of bartering.  As darkness descends, a woman, exhausted, looks around at the leftover items, cast-off possessions she just can’t bear to haul back into the hut.  “Just take them to the bog,” she wearily instructs her mate.

***

Americans receive almost 4 million tons of junk mail every year.

***

Garbology is the study of garbage, an academic discipline involving the careful observation and study of refuse and trash.  Its premise: that the content of waste generated by a specific population can provide clues about that population’s culture, values, and way of life.   The term garbology is thought to have been first coined by Professor Willian Rathje of the University of Arizona in 1971.

Garbology has applications in archaeology, because trash is sometimes the only remnant of certain ancient populations.  Ancient waste may provide information otherwise not accessible to contemporary researchers through food remains, pollen traces from plants, or broken tools.

Garbology has been used to study the trash stream—from where is most of the trash coming, of what materials does it primarily consist, and which of these materials are particularly slow to biodegrade?

Garbology can also be used as a tool of investigation, whether in corporate or international espionage, private detecting, or identity theft.  Once something is placed at the curb in a bag or a bin, or in a dumpster behind the premises, it is no longer private property.  Anyone may remove any item from the trash and put it to their own use: the bottles you were too lazy to take to the recycler will be cashed in by someone more industrious; the lumpy old sofa your hauled out of your attic will become the centerpiece of someone’s home; your phone, credit card, and checking account numbers may be used to fund a shopping spree for somebody else.  When an investigator wanted to find out about fraudulent vote counts in a given precinct, she went dumpster diving for computer printouts from voting machines and discovered the data to prove her case.

***

In the United States an additional 5 million tons of waste is generated during the holidays. Four million tons of this is wrapping paper and shopping bags.

***

Since 1977, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles has been working with New York’s Department of Sanitation (DOS) to bring more public awareness of and appreciation for the work of that city’s sanitation workers.  Her first DOS work, Touch Sanitation, was a performance in which she appeared in all fifty-nine community districts in all five boroughs, and stood face-to-face with each of 8,500 “san-men,” shook their hands one by one, and declared, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”  The process took two years.

Part of her project is to undermine the stigma we attach to maintenance work, which she equates with women’s work, and erase the separation we feel from workers who perform it.  She is both outraged and bemused by the human tendency to disavow the body and its survival needs.  In a 1984 “Sanitation Manifesto,” she writes, “We are, all of us, whether we desire it or not, in relation to Sanitation, implicated, dependent, if we want the City, and ourselves, to last more than a few days.  I am—along with every other citizen who lives, works, visits, or passes through this space—a co-producer of Sanitation’s work-product, as well as a customer of Sanitation’s work.”[1]

***

Every year Americans fill enough garbage trucks to form a line that would stretch from the earth, halfway to the moon.

***

I seldom rise to greet the men who hoist my refuse into maws of bright green trucks.  Yet their engine’s music summons me from dreams with a terrible whine of gears, then the resonance of metal digesting.  It is night when I prepare my gift for them, intricately sort plastic bottles, aluminum foil, forest of junk mail from bones and rinds and seeds.  So tenderly I wrap twist ties, offer my prayer they’ll be secure, withstand the scrutiny of the street.  That flimsy, barely opaque skin contains evidence I want no one to see—what’s used up, cast off, disclaimed by me.  History sheathed in polyethylene.  It seems so vulnerable, slumped at the curb.  My pale doppelganger.

***

We throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.

***

In the central northern Pacific Ocean, located roughly between 135° to 155°W and 35° to 42°N, ocean currents create a vortex known as the North Pacific Gyre.  The swirling eddies draws debris into its relatively calm center, earning this area the informal name of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  At one time, the flotsam and other waste biodegraded, but over the last several years, the Patch is accumulating enormous quantities of plastic.

Plastic disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces that are consumed by jellyfish who are then eaten by other fish.  Thus, these plastic polymers enter the food chain.  The tiny bits of plastic are also mistaken by sea birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles for food; ingestion disrupts gene activity, digestion, and causes cancer.  It also causes starvation in young, who are fed plastic instead of plankton.  Animal carcasses washed ashore have been found to contain bottle caps, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, plastic bags, and other plastic waste. The Eastern Garbage Patch is said to be the size of the state of Texas.

Twin sisters and artists, Margaret and Christine Wertheim of Los Angeles, are crocheting a “Rubbish Vortex,” a replica of the Eastern Garbage Patch.  To do so, they are saving all of their plastic trash for one year.  On their website, www.theiff.org/reef/reef4.htmlthey say, “Since the start of 2007 we have been keeping all our plastic waste. After 2 days we were appalled. After a week we were horrified. After a month we were devastated. No matter how much we try not to, it just keeps accumulating. We are planning to keep an entire year’s worth of plastic as a record. It is a truly sobering experience. We encourage everyone to do this exercise as a lesson for themselves – there is nothing like living with a heap of your own PVC and Styrofoam to make you think twice about what you bring home from the supermarket.”

***

Every year Americans make enough plastic film to shrink-wrap the state of Texas.

***

If the goal of capitalism is to induce us to acquire more and more, then capitalism is inevitably a system of waste creation.  Everyone I know struggles with management and storage of their possessions.  All over the U.S., Americans are renting outside storage space to deal with the things they own, even though the size of homes is increasing and family size is shrinking.  What’s not diminishing is the amount of our stuff.  Currently there is more than 2 billion square feet of rental storage space in the United States, earning more than $22 billion in gross revenue in 2006. Couldn’t we house the homeless instead?

And despite all the books and magazines that tell us how to simplify and downsize our lives, what happens to the economy if we stop buying?  Who loses their jobs?  In the aftermath of the devastation of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, President George Bush exhorted Americans to “go shopping;” it was, he maintained, an act of patriotism to keep the economy from flat-lining in the wake of the attacks.

I look around my modest house, and feel a longing to rid myself of half of all I own—books, CDs, pairs of shoes, kitchen stuff.  I think how refreshed I would feel to lessen the visual clutter, the psychic pull of so many objects.  And then I think: where would it go?  Does it become someone else’s visual clutter, someone else’s psychic burden?  What does the library really do with the shopping bags full of books that I take there to donate?  What do the thrift stores do with those donations they choose not to keep?  What happens to the towels with stains on them, the socks with holes?  They go, of course, to the landfill.

***

Americans toss out enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons every year to circle the equator 300 times.  The average American office worker goes through around 500 disposable cups every year.

***

Once deposited in a landfill, trash may remain there for decades or millennia.  Landfills were never intended to break down trash, but instead bury it.  There is little oxygen or moisture inside a landfill, so even biodegradable trash does not break down quickly.  (Some have reported finding forty-year-old newspapers with easily readable print.)  Some items deposited in landfills contain toxic chemicals that can contaminate groundwater through leakage.  Other substances, like plastics, polystyrene, or nylon, never break down.  A glass bottle may remain intact for a million years.  A plastic bottle may remain intact forever.

***

An American child will use between 8,000 -10,000 disposable diapers before being potty trained. Each year, parents and babysitters dispose of about 18 billion of these items. These diapers will still be in the landfill 300 years from now.

 ***

Once, on a driving trip down the Baja, my then-girlfriend Tammy and I got lost in Tijuana. Before the new highway was opened up, a missed turn could leave you hopelessly off course in the vast, chaotic city.  A couple more wrong turns, and we found ourselves driving up a steep road over a mountain of what turned out to be trash.  We had mistakenly driven into the city dump.  But what was amazing was that there were people living there—men, women, and children.  Some sat before ramshackle huts cooking on open fires.  Others seemed to have burrowed into the enormous pile of trash itself, covered only with plastic tarps.  I was fearful, but also deeply embarrassed to have trespassed on the lives of these people.  The odor was indescribable.

I later learned that over two thousand people live in Colonia Fausto Gonzalez, the collection of dilapidated structures surrounding and atop the vast mountain that is Tijuana’s city dump.  Approximately twelve hundred tons of trash are carried each day to the dump, where the residents/workers scavenge items both for personal use and to sell: cloth diapers, clothing, glass bottles, aluminum cans, electronics and car parts, and whatever food might still be edible.  For the pepenadores, or scavengers, the risks are many: Garbage trucks have injured or killed some workers. Toxic substances abound. Workers are routinely stuck by discarded hypodermic needles that are mixed in with the rest of the debris.  The life expectancy of trash pickers, who earn an average of about $200 per month, is less than two-thirds that of the general population.

Through their labor, the pepenadores substantially reduce the volume of waste that accumulates in the dump.  They are Tijuana’s unofficial recycling program.

***

American businesses throw out 15 million toner cartridges every year; enough to stretch from New York to Zurich.  The plastic used in one toner cartridge contains about a half quart of oil.

***

In nature, nothing is wasted.  The sun activates photosynthesis, inducing plants to grow.  Plants provide humans and animals with food, medicine, shelter, and oxygen.  Microbes in the soil process dead matter to nourish the ground for the next cycle.

This cycle has served the earth for millions of years.  However, since the Industrial Revolution, humans have established a counter-system: mining non-renewable materials from the earth’s crust; using production processes that generate waste materials which may be toxic and/or have no ability to decompose; creating products that people don’t really need and/or that have a limited lifespan and/or that have no potential for re-use, recycling, or re-purposing.  Nothing is given back to the future.

The Zero Waste movement proposes that we redesign our systems of production according to the cyclical models of the natural world.  It proposes the elimination of solid waste, hazardous waste, toxics and emissions, and suggests that the whole notion of waste should be expunged from our consciousness.

***

Despite increasing consciousness of these efforts, it’s hard to change habits.  I stopped using paper cups in my writing classes, instead providing ceramic mugs. Still, it took years for me to acquire a metal water bottle to replace the 29¢ bottled water from Trader Joe’s.  Only about half the time do I remember to take my reusable bags out of the back seat of my car and into the grocery store.  I’m good about separating trash, but if a plastic takeout container requires washing before it can go into recycling, sometimes I will just toss it.  Every week, I trundle those bulky trash bins down the driveway, chagrinned at my waste.

***

The average American uses 650 pounds of paper annually.  Each year we trash enough office paper to build a 12-foot wall from Los Angeles to New York City. Americans make nearly 400 billion photocopies a year – about 750,000 copies every minute of every day.

***

In the end, we may only be known by what we’ve thrown away.  Will future archaeologists sift through our debris and see us better than we see ourselves?  If technology survives, researchers may be able to correctly identify a toner cartridge or a carburetor, primitive though these will seem to descendants.  No doubt they will shake their heads at what we wasted, what we did not understand enough to value.  Our naïve assumption that there would always be more.

If technology collapses, so much information will be lost.  Those future excavators who discover remnants of our time will invent theories, and likely they’ll get it wrong.  Perhaps they’ll speculate that our mountains of trash were our treasures, the things we valued enough to preserve.  Discarded paint cans will be interpreted as ritual vessels for the worship of color.  Rubber tires seen as icons of a spherical goddess to which we prayed.  Cast-off sinks seen as basins for baptismal rites.  Evidence suggests that a community of people actually lived on or near these sights, perhaps to safeguard these precious objects or to preside over the rituals associated with them.


[1] Interview: Mierle Laderman Ukeles on Maintenance and Sanitation Art, Finkelpearl, Tom: Dialogues in Public Art.  MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, 2001.

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