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6 trashy exercises: Robin Nagle on thinking more creatively about garbage

Posted by: TED Guest Author
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Robin Nagle is a trash anthrologist. Here, she shares some exercises to help you think more deeply about garbage. Photo: Ryan Lash

By Robin Nagle

When I teach classes about the anthropology of waste and discards, I always designate one 48-hour period in which my students and I keep all the trash we would otherwise throw out. (I kindly exclude recyclables and anything that normally gets flushed.) The effort teaches a few important lessons. Robin Nagle: What I discovered in New York City  trashRobin Nagle: What I discovered in New York City trashIt demonstrates that trash generation is done casually, without much thought at all. My students get an intimate sense of just how deeply their habits of wasting are engrained in their minds. Because they’re unable to let go of it, even for a short time, they also become aware of how trash is otherwise mostly invisible to them.

Here are a few exercises and questions to help you change your own awareness of waste. And I mean waste as both a practice and as a category of material.

1. Choose a disposable object that you use regularly – a take-out coffee cup, a plastic shopping bag, a tissue for wiping your nose – and replace it with its durable counterpart (a reusable coffee cup, a cloth shopping bag, a handkerchief). Notice how often you forget to bring the durable version with you. Notice the kind of attention and care it requires when you do remember it. How does it change your relationship to that object? Does it inspire any reflections about the rhythms and habits of your daily life? Of the larger society around you?

2. Use a disposable object as long as possible before it wears out. This might be a plastic food container, a paper napkin, a plastic water bottle, or anything else intended for single use. How long does it last? What causes it to finally be unusable?

3. Find out details about the management system used for your household trash. Is it collected by municipal workers, or by a private company? Where does it go? What does it cost to collect the household waste of your town or city, and according to whom? Are parts of the process left to informal practices such as gleaning or scavenging? If so, where do gleaners or scavengers fit into the larger regional waste disposal system? Pay attention to how easy or difficult it is to find answers to these questions. If it’s difficult, what makes it so?

4. Do an inventory of your household trash and your household recyclables. Consider where each element of your garbage originated. If you wanted to analyze all the steps required to create, fill, market, transport, distribute and discard a plastic water bottle, for instance, where would you start? Let’s stay with the plastic water bottle. If it’s the end point of a complex series of industrial processes, what forms and quantities of waste do those processes generate? How are they regulated? Where do they go? What can you learn when you ask the same question about other categories of trash in your household waste?

5. Try a status experiment. Suggest to friends that you (or your child or younger sibling or cousin – that is, someone close to you) would like to make a career as a sanitation worker. How do people react?

6. Wherever you live, keep an eye out for your sanitation workers — the people who take away your trash. Remember that theirs is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Know that their work makes your life possible. Take a moment to thank them.