Reimagining Trash: Beyond the Domain of the Unwanted

I’ve been up close and personal with trash a lot lately. A few weeks ago I found myself neurotically purging my apartment of trash and unwanted items; in the process of doing so I mistakenly left my iPhone on top of one of the trash-filled boxes I would later throw away. Just a half hour later I found myself straddling a dumpster fishing for my phone, awkwardly propping myself up while trying not to touch any part of the dumpster or its contents with my bare skin. Surrounded by my own comic filth, I couldn’t help but be disgusted with my role in the dumpster: guiltless, thoughtless contributor. Enabler, even. What would happen if I never made that trash to begin with?

LeaguetoSaveLakeTahoe trashphoto 2018A week later, my morning walk on a warm Sunday next to the Truckee railroad tracks led me to a site that most would associate with the alleys and under-bridges of places like San Francisco and LA: dozens of opened cans spread out among the roots of a large bush next to a pile of discarded clothing, a soggy and slightly frozen old book, a yellowed newspaper, a broken razor, and other unfortunately degraded personal items. Undoubtedly, this bush was recently home to someone who must have lost their way – and only a few hundred yards from my own warm, cozy home. I felt uncomfortable with the closeness of this reality. These experiences both gave me an icky feeling in my stomach – that uneasy prickle of things that don’t belong, of things forgotten. Trash encompasses the unwanted, scummy, dirty remnants of our lives that we have cast outside of our social cycles of use and purpose. As Dave Chappelle points out in his most recent Netflix Comedy special, white people call the poorest among them “trash” – trailer trash, white trash, trashy people. “Trash” is the name and the destiny we assign to those that don’t belong; trash is the domain of the wandering, unwanted, and the homeless.

Our personal garbage is also homeless. It ends up in landfills or shipped away for other people to deal with. Rather than taking responsibility for our waste, our castaways become a pollutant choking our waterways, the air we breathe, and the land upon which we build our livelihoods. We toss out our old clothes and dirty napkins without a further thought for where they go or what happens to them when they no longer belong.

We need to reimagine trash. We need to create systems for unwanted items to find a new purpose and to close the loop – like nature’s habit of turning waste into life, we must learn to work like the complex system of plants, fungi, insects, bacteria, and animals that turn decayed organic matter into something new and vibrant. We need a regenerative, circular economy.

For these reasons, I am so excited to see The Town of Truckee’s new waste management system rolling out. The new programs will eliminate the need for residents to purchase green & blue bags, prevent recycling contamination, and increase the amount of materials that can be recycled. The suite of new changes also includes pilot programs to reduce to-go container waste, more support for restaurants to comply with state waste laws, and more. Truckee residents can find out more and sign up for your carts here.

The work that the Town is undertaking to solve this critical issue is important, timely, and highly welcome. It’s the first step to closing the loop.

Dare to imagine, though – what would it take to go further? What cultural or business model changes would it take to design products that lasted a lifetime and could be shared among neighbors? To design good jobs that didn’t require Master’s degrees? What if restaurants served smaller, more affordable portions, used ugly vegetables in their recipes, and cut down on prep waste? Employed the residents of halfway homes? What if we created a world with no need for dumpsters? What if local support systems were so robust that we never had a person experiencing homelessness walk our streets again? What if the Truckee Way – no, the human way – meant that there was a place for everyone and everything?

It’s time to reimagine trash with our triple bottom line glasses on.

Photo Courtesy the League to Save Lake Tahoe