On the meaning of trash

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 20, 2010


Providence cultural center AS220 wraps up the fall edition of its Action Speaks! panel discussion series with an examination of that oft-ignored byproduct of America's consumerist culture: trash.

The Action Speaks! chats always use an underappreciated moment in history as a jumping-off point and this time it's the 1987 launch of the Mobro 4000 trash barge, which wandered from New York City to Belize and back again in search of a community willing to accept the waste.

The Mobro's months-long odyssey, which finally ended with an incineration of its payload in Brooklyn, sparked a national conversation about consumption and environmental degradation. Those topics are sure to come up in the Action Speaks! discussion, set for Wednesday, October 27 from 5:30 to 7 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street. The event is free and open to the public.

The panel is scheduled to include Boston University professor Juliet Schor, author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture; Michael O'Connor, director of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation; and New York University's Robin Nagle, the anthropologist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation.

The Phoenix, a sponsor of Action Speaks!, caught up with Nagle for a Q&A over email. (The interview was edited.)

WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT TRASH? So many reasons! Here's a partial list:

• Whether considered in a local context or within the flows of global capital, trash has devastating and sometimes irreversible effects on all ecosystems through which it passes and in which it settles.

• It is a collection of objects and remnants that some person or some entity decided were no longer worth attention or care, but that still require significant attention from political powers, in economic decisions, and most immediately from the men and women who pick it up and keep it moving. Paying attention to garbage as a fact of contemporary life lets us consider those politics and economics more thoughtfully, and also helps us remember just how important are those men and women who deal with it every day.

• When we start to care about trash, it's easier to imagine how to change current patterns of waste generation. We don't have to accept that massive quantities of waste are assumed and unavoidable side-effects of resource extraction, manufacture, distribution, and consumption. We can begin to imagine real alternatives.

• Much of the trash that we generate today is plastics-based. Most of that plastic is made from petrochemicals. Why do we relentlessly search for oil, which we use in part to create those plastics, and then allow those very products such short use?

YOU'VE REFERRED TO SANITATION WORKERS AS "FOLK SOCIOLOGISTS." WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT? A sanitation worker can "read" a neighborhood in fine detail based on what people throw away. Garbage reveals intimate details about the individuals who create it, especially in the context of household waste.

YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT OUR PENCHANT FOR MAKING TRASH INVISIBLE. WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF OUR DESIRE TO HIDE THE DISCARDED? We don't see trash because it's hard to confront and tough to think about. We don't like it — for itself — because it's sometimes smelly, often messy, and mashes together things that were once separable, individual objects. Garbage breaches a series of categories that are meant to be kept separate — clothing and animal waste, let's say, or food and loose hair. How gross is that?

We also don't want to see trash because we're uncomfortable knowing that we make so much of it, and because, frankly, we're uncertain how to make less of it.

YOU'RE ATTEMPTING TO CREATE A SANITATION MUSEUM IN NEW YORK CITY. HOW'S IT GOING? Slowly, but there is tremendous good will for the effort. I'm confident that we'll eventually have a world-class museum that will do New York proud.

Related: Sugar-coated pop, anyone?, Genre-jumping, 'Round town: ''Cultivar'' and ''Sleight of Hand'', More more >
  Topics: This Just In , environment, green, Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation,  More more >
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