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Making Garbage Visible in All Its Stinky Glory
Emily Gertz, 20 Sep 07
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The two-week "Zero Waste to Landfill" challenge is on at the American Public Radio show Marketplace Money. Program host Tess Vigeland has dared listeners to join her in carrying every piece of trash they generate for two weeks, revealing quite viscerally just how much garbage each person is responsible for sending to a landfill. As reported by Marketplace Money,

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans are throwing away garbage at an accelerating pace. Americans generated 245.7 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2005-a 20 percent increase over 1990 and 102 percent increase over 1970. Americans currently toss out 4.5 pounds of trash per day per person. While modern landfills bear scant resemblance to the old city dump, few people want them as neighbors. Consider California: Edgar & Associates, a waste industry consulting firm, finds the number of active landfills in California has dropped from 224 to 158 since 1993. In the next 15 years, six landfills in Los Angeles County are slated to close and garbage will be shipped ever further distances-at greater cost and producing more pollution.

We can all see how well Vigeland lives up to the trash challenge, as she's blogging regular written and photo updates of her efforts on the Marketplace web site. And it looks like a few listeners are taking up the trash challenge, or at least following along while Vigeland carries around her garbage. "I let down my guard last night, forgot about the trash challenge while walking through the grocery aisles, and bought a roasted chicken for dinner," Vigeland wrote yesterday. "D'oh! So that fear of chicken bones that I mentioned in my first posting? Yeah. I'm carrying around a chicken carcass now...I've got it double-Ziploc'd, but the trash bag is starting to smell, at least when I open it up."

I like this. It's an amusing, creative way to reveal a serious environmental and resource issue, one that is typically invisible to most of us -- and thus largely unaccounted for in our actions, and inconsistently calculated into the cost accounting of our all-growth-all-the-time economy, or how we regulate it. It's easy to look at the numbers and numb out at the scale of how much garbage we create, or feel aghast at American wastefulness; it's harder to convey that it's a problem we're all responsible for creating. What's also neat is that Vigeland is trying to go beyond stunt-programming and make this an experiential collaboration between the show and its listeners -- who, if they take on the trash challenge, can also post stories and photos on the web site. It puts me in mind of some of the works that artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles has undertaken with the New York City Department of Sanitation to renew the relationships between residents, the trash they create, and the workers who perform the essential service of carting it off -- like covering a garbage truck with a mirror-like covering, so that people would see themselves reflected in it as it made trash pickups around the city.

We'll have to check in to see how listeners and Marketplace's reporters connect these stories to our larger, largely unconscious assumptions about wealth and waste that underpin our version of a market economy.

The trash challenge is aimed squarely at American listeners. But perhaps those in other countries who catch the show via the internet will be inspired to join in: perspectives and photos on how much trash is created beyond America's borders, and how it is or isn't dealt with, would be really interesting to see.

Image credit: flickr/Poagao

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The late Donella Meadows and some of her students did this about 20 years ago: carried all their trash around with them for one week. Junk mail came to infuriate them - they had no control over it.

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Sep 07

I actually tried the same thing at the beginning of the summer. It was a telling experiment for me, and I've had friends tell me that it inspired them to think about the waste they create.

Posted by: Adam Brock on 22 Sep 07



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