Part of our daily perception of reality is that [trash] disappears from our world. When you go to the toilet, shit disappears. You flush it, of course you know, rationally…it’s there, but at a certain level of your most elementary experience, it disappears from your world. But the problem is that trash doesn’t disappear.
Slavoj Zizek, from the documentary film The Examined Life
By Jordan Augustine
There is a lot of trash out there. Landfills grow larger every year. We see trash in the streets, on the beaches, and in the woods. Why then, even if we are fully aware of the unsustainable accumulation of garbage, do we not do more to reduce or eliminate the production of waste products?
There is probably a smarter and better way of attempting to answer this question, but lately I’ve been thinking about your average, everyday trash can. Chances are, you can probably see one from wherever you are right now. Whenever we throw something away, we are directly contributing to the mass accumulation of garbage. However, even if we know this, even if we are cognitively aware of it, we at some level don’t accept it. The commonplace act of placing garbage into an enclosed receptacle hides garbage from view, and functions psychologically to allow us to dissociate our “disposal” of garbage from the fact and effects of its persistence.
When we place waste in a trash can, we feel it is no longer our responsibility. Other people are paid to collect and dispose of trash. We put our trash cans by the side of the curb, and someone comes by and empties them. Our trash cans return to us empty, and although we rationally know that the trash must go somewhere, we assume, since it is someone else’s job to take care of it, that it is handled properly.
We all feel good when we pick trash off of the ground and throw it away, and we hate litterers with a passion and unanimity usually reserved for pedophiles, slow drivers, and Nazis. Certainly, the trash can serves a beneficial municipal service. There are a wide array of reasons why we should collect garbage and not leave it laying around. But, when the act of trash disposal exists only in reference to the undesirable location of a waste object, when, in throwing something away, we are only concerned with moving it to a different place, we participate in personal and collective delusion. We sweep dust under the rug of the world, resulting in a collective repression of guilt (pardon my Freud), a repression of our responsibility as consumers and citizens for the existence of garbage.
The ritual associated with the cultural artifact of the trash can is thus an act of sorcery: as we throw away trash it is magically transformed, its threat to the community dissolved into the hollow plastic idol. Except for the fact that it isn’t. Throwing trash away doesn’t physically do anything to it.
The first step in changing how we collectively mediate the production, distribution, and disposal of physical commodities is changing our own individual attitudes about responsibility for waste products. As consumers, we are just as culpable for wasteful packaging and unsustainable materials as the companies who sell them to us. Our responsibility for a waste object doesn’t end when we put it in a trash can; just because we can’t see it anymore doesn’t mean it goes away. There is no away.
From now on, trash cans are no longer innocent objects. They are the site of the production and maintenance of ideology. They tell us that all we are meant to think about when we find an empty Starbucks cup in our hand is where to get rid of it. They tell us that once we have swept it under the proper rug, all we need to worry about is finding the money to buy another. And another. And another.