Talking Trash

By Undustrial
Published January 18, 2012

Trash is something of a passion of mine. It's an absolutely fascinating social phenomena, from the middens of ancient archaeological sites to the treasure-rich dumpsters up the street. Among my many unfinished projects is a book draft detailing about a hundred kinds, and the host of ways each can be recycled on a household basis into anything from food to clothing to housing itself.

After a few hundred hours of research into the topic, one simple thesis became apparent - there really is no such thing as "garbage", at least in an objective sense. The entire notion is totally socially constructed, and every bit a part of our industrial economy.

As a society and economy, we act more like a single digestive tract than an ecosystem, devouring and disposing of resources on a colossal scale without much thought to using any of them efficiently or sustainably.

If three words sum up the industry, they would be "mining in reverse", and it's every bit as destructive, toxic and wasteful. Garbage represents an enormous untapped resource which our current municipal "recycling" efforts only begin to scratch the surface of.

A few recent stories have caught my attention on the matter, from the recent three-piece series on littering to the new controversy regarding a council suggestion to ease recent bag limits on garbage collection.

In the latter, especially, people are quick to complain that reducing waste and sorting garbage is far too much work. Having put my garbage out the other night after the rest of the house went to bed, I can't say that I find it to be an "unbearable burden", even when compared to basic tasks such as dishes or sweeping.

Also, since we often produce less than a full bag a week of garbage (I cleaned the basement until my second bag was full), unscrupulous neighbours are often taking advantage of the curb in front of my house - not something I mind terribly until it starts putting my home over the limit (something they clearly don't mind). Though I'm never totally sure who did it, it's more than one neighbouring house, and none of them ever seem to have blue boxes out...

Expensive Resources

These resources are not cheap. We may pay highly subsidized prices for things like paper, metals and plastic, but that doesn't mean that there aren't broader consequences which come with each and every piece of trash.

Beyond the obvious environmental issues, there's the question of supply - particularly pressing now as most resources have been rising in price and declining in avialability for most of the last decade.

Then there's the human cost - all the work which goes into extracting the materials, producing the goods, shipping and retailing them, then finally collecting and disposing of them.

Also, since both extraction and disposal (as well as other stages) tend to be quite toxic, they often have huge and undocumented costs among neighbours, particularly indigenous and third-world peoples.

Locally, the Six Nations battle against the Cayuga dump expansion would be a good example of the kind of environmental racism here, as would be broader issues like E-waste, mining and energy.

False and Real Economies

Many argue that because this process "creates jobs" that it provides additional benefits. The fallacy here is to assume that any of us are really gaining by working more only to have those wages turned over to the price of disposing of our goods and re-producing them.

Whether we pay these costs through taxes, increased prices or a generally falling standard of living, it's clear that a huge cost comes attached to these "jobs".

Employing a few poor people at the price of gouging the rest of poor people for the purpose of a needless and destructive task does working people no favours. It's work for the sake of work, and we all know who the actual winners are.

By this logic, there's no reason to own anything past the first day, and we might as well regularly burn down our homes. Any system of economic measures that ignores the ongoing benefits provided by goods which aren't being replaced is deeply flawed. Then again, our standard of living' was never really the point, was it?

If this entire process takes place for the sake of one "use", then the entire process can become twice as efficient by using something twice. This kind of economic activity multiplies the real-world benefits many times over.

There are some issues of diminishing returns as things break down, but there are additional benefits if it can be salvaged for spare parts or materials.

As most people know, these things always tend to seem like useless clutter until you have to pay $40 for a replacement cog the day after you throw a whole box of them out.

Theories of Value

It's also worth considering what kind of value we place on these goods. There are many "theories of value", and many distinctions within them.

One can consider the work and resources which went into producing them, their "use-value" to you as an individual, judge them on aesthetic qualities or rate them their relative scarcity in the overall economy (usually with market pricing).

Capitalists prefer the last option, and it's easy to see how this leads to the widespread de-valuing of all kinds of goods while ignoring all other standards of value. When considered in a capitalist society where urban and residential land is highly priced, that makes storing 'junk' expensive, and drives people to throw out everything they can.

Most other societies took the opposite view - using local resources as efficiently as possible first, and relying on distant trade goods second (if at all).

There are very good reasons to do this - especially in terms of labour, the environment, economics and aesthetics as pretty much any hand-crafted goods show. These practices make the most use possible out of raw materials (instead of the least) and build diverse and decentralized forms of production, which are exactly what we need right now.

Of course, these views have consequences too. First, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to buy things which soon have to be thrown out, even if they're "cheaper" (at the store...).

Cheap manufacturing methods, low-quality materials and poor designs will soon render them useless for not only their intended task, but also most forms of re-use. Contrast things which can be maintained and repaired, which are worth disassembling for materials and which don't require specialized or proprietary parts.

Questioning Garbage

Questioning "garbage" means questioning the way our productive systems have been structured over the last century to produce mainly garbage.

Under our economic system, consumers bear all (accounted for) costs of the process, so it's only natural to try to get us to consume as much as possible - if collecting the profits from this process is your goal.

If you wish to use these goods rather than sell them, this doesn't do you much good. When you simply want a refrigerator that refrigerates, you gain nothing from having to replace it regularly, yet you do pay for it.

Packaging often makes up close to half of the price of goods (especially at the supermarket), but it doesn't give us much other than more to clean up.

This isn't a problem that city regulations can solve for us, it's one we need to approach ourselves. That is the only point in this process where these goods get the attention necessary to really creatively re-use them.

It's also the point where they cost us nothing and involve the lowest transportation costs (negative in both counts if they don't have to be collected and disposed of as a result).

There's an absolute wealth of materials flowing through our homes and neighbourhoods, and we're the ones who pay for it if we don't use them. Diverting "waste" in this way is only possible at the household and community level, and that's exactly where it's needed.

We don't have to blast apart mountains and acid-leach the rubble to get it, drill kilometres under the ocean floor or deforest large areas, but if we simply throw this stuff away, that's what will have to happen again.

This essay was first posted on Undustrial's personal website.

Undustrial is a writer, tinkerer, activist and father who lives in Hamilton's North End. He chooses to remain pseudonymous as he frequently works with much of Hamilton's Development industry.


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2012 at 09:22:23

Great commentary. (And nice to see available to a wider audience than usual.)

As a result of some fishing about for 'litter' and 'garbage'-based images for a triptych set I recently wrote

I came across this book:

I'm looking forward to reading it. (I'm borrowing it from the library, so as not to add to the 'consumptive society'... LOL)

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Simon (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2012 at 10:46:16

Nice read - I have often though of how long it will be until we start mining old dumps to retrieve all the usable materials buried there.

Ever been to India? I am pretty sure there are no civic dumps - everything gets picked through as garbage flows downhill through society. Having said that - there is still a lot of garbage garbage - such as plastic bags and plastic packaging - that is not useful to anyone dumped all over the place - but I am sure it is a very small percentage of the total garbage produced by millions of people.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2012 at 10:58:11

What always boggles my mind is all the brittle plastic packaging we deal with. Soft bag-like plastic collapses easily for disposal, and cardboard packaging can be recycled/incinerated/composted/whatever (and besides, you can always grow more trees). But all those clamshells and the bubble of hard plastic on a child's boxed toy... it seems just so wasteful to do that stuff in this day and age.

Likewise, I'd love to see the LCBO/Beer Store deposit/refilling model expanded to all manner of glass jars.

Permalink | Context

By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2012 at 11:05:04 in reply to Comment 73147

How about deposits on ALL packaging. Imagine a 5 cent deposit on disposable coffee cups... Hamilton would be 80% tidier under that scheme and Tim Hortons would have to work harder to encourage reusable cups if they want to reduce the cost of disposing of the garbage they are currently so willing to send out the door every day.

Permalink | Context

By rednic (registered) | Posted January 18, 2012 at 13:08:41 in reply to Comment 73148

'Tims' is very bad about this i was on the 401 this summer and at a tims they refused to refill my cup from the previous coffee place, based on Workplace Health and Safety concerns.

Permalink | Context

By JM (registered) | Posted January 18, 2012 at 15:30:33 in reply to Comment 73155

they also dont seem to understand the concept of "for here" ...and i receive everything wrapped up in a paper bag and cup, instead of in a washable mug and on a washable dish

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 18, 2012 at 12:18:03

How about deposits on ALL packaging. Imagine a 5 cent deposit on disposable coffee cups...

Yes! I resent the fact that Tim Horton's externalizes the cost of their waste production to me, the schmuck picking out countless Timmy's cups from his front hedge, while they pocket the profit.

I will give them credit though: When we were last doing the Garbage Crawl in Beasley, we noticed that the City's garbage trailer (with all the useful bags and equipment) appeared to be donated by Tim Hortons. One volunteer remarked that it was only fair, since 40% of the garbage we were picking up were coffee cups.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By slodrive (registered) | Posted January 18, 2012 at 12:28:37

Really cool read. I question the (perhaps, implied) notion that city regulations can't control packaging. On a municipal level, for sure. However, I would think that the growing number of municipalities that are strapped with an expensive garbage/ landfill crisis would become a fairly loud voice in the lobby to regulate packaging.

I don't know too many 'consumers' who are endeared by massive amounts of packaging -- consciously, anyway. Generally, the fight for shelf space and retail exposure drives the packaging arms race.

And, the only way to combat that is for government regulations to stop it. There's simply no consumer choice in that regard to choose otherwise...even if they're inclined to bother doing it.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2012 at 13:19:05

British Columbia has deposits on far more containers than we, and in my time out west it seemed to work quite well. People scour parks for old pop cans and bottles, and most garbage cans had racks to leave them for others if you didn't care to return them yourself (sadly, many of these were removed for the Olympics). It's a good example of how a few cents a piece can make a dramatic change in people's actions. Also, the beer bottle industry is a very good example of successful re-use. There's little point in "recycling" such glass since sand is hardly a scarce resource (and bottles must be crushed into sand, which requires more effort). Returned, washed and re-filled, though, it's a very different story, and some (particularly 'stubbies') can do this for decades.

Thanks for all the compliments - didn't expect this to get around quite so quickly, but I'm glad it did. We urgently need better solutions than dumps and incinerators, and the first step is to ask where all this trash is coming from.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Timmy TIme (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2012 at 13:37:44

What a great way for Tim's to show corporate responsibility by giving away reusable mugs once a year as a promotion. Let's say 10,000 mugs in target cities - great promo for them and a nice way to advertise their brand.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By FELICIA (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2012 at 16:09:35

Turning trash into treasure. Which state can I go to get a job on how to turn trash into wealth? I want to learn the process and take this process to some of the developing countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, or Ghana.

Eddy Eruanga

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools