Tag: trash

Histories Hidden in Trash

What we learned walking across Berlin with a garbologist.

For Eva Becker, trash is a research subject. Germany’s first garbologist researches refuse and what it says about the humans creating it. In late summer, we joined her on one of her trash walks: A stroll through Berlin’s Kreuzberg district to document the trash on the streets.
Trash has a tendency to blend into the human environment. Especially in a city as busy and sometimes gritty as Berlin, you may fail to notice it. Walking with Eva, asking questions and slowly turning over the trash we found on our way was an eye-opening experience: Not only is there much more trash than you might think, it’s also scattered in the most unexpected places. We’ll let Eva explain.
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Garbology is the study of modern trash. William Rathje of the University of Arizona started using modern archaeological methods to analyse trash in the 1970s. He realized, that the way we litter tells a lot about the way we live. I stumbled upon his research some years ago and was fascinated by it. I did some research and found out that garbology is virtually non-existent in Germany which motivated me to do it.
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Trash is nothing new. As a species, we have always left something behind. In the Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world, archeologists have found trash in the form of bones or stone splitt-offs.
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The interesting thing about garbage is that it serves as a common denominator. We all litter. Every part of the city is dirty. It’s just the amount and type of garbage that varies. A neighbourhood like Kreuzberg or Neukölln is a real treasure trove for somebody like me: Most people don’t really see the garbage that surrounds them because it is so ubiquitous. We filter it out. It’s only when the amount or type of garbage is unusual that we are reminded of it.
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There are two ways people in cities deal with garbage when they are on the go: either they hide it or they present it. Sometimes, you come across a piece of garbage that was not just thrown away but carefully arranged or positioned by somebody. You would assume that people would dispose of their waste in the most discreet manner but some expose their garbage so that the trash collectors can more easily spot and collect it. And then there’s human laziness. That’s probably the prime reason for all the trash we find here. Even if there are enough garbage bins around: the incentive is not strong enough to overcome laziness and actually use them. Hiding waste, on the other hand, is mostly driven by shame or disgust. None of us likes garbage, not even our own.
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I have a very high tolerance by now. Of course there are things that disgust me like used syringes or human waste. When I go and talk to school classes here in Berlin, I am always amazed at how the kids react to the garbage I bring with me. They will gladly take up a plastic cup or something that was laying on the street but they jump up and scream if there is an ant or spider crawling around. They have lost all connection to nature. Nature has become something unfamiliar and hence disgusting.
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I have seen and documented so much garbage, there is relatively little that still amazes or shocks me. The most surprising thing is probably when you see something valuable being thrown out. I once found this very old and beautiful Indian antique. An acquaintance of mine – an Indologist – later told me that it was quite precious and rare.
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It’s very hard to tell where garbage begins and where it ends. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. Are dead bodies garbage? When we die, our bodies no longer fulfill any functions, they become more or less worthless and that’s how many people would define waste: a useless object. But our bodies continue to have a function after we die, they become compost and re-enter the biological cycle. I would define garbage as something that is of no use but stays in the environment in some way or another. A plastic bag in the ocean will disintegrate but its parts will stay in the water for a substantial amount of time. Marine biologists call these little shreds of plastic mermaid tears.
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William Rathje analysed the garbage at the Fresh Kills Landfill in NYC and what they found out was astounding. One example: they found large quantities of beef. They were able to trace it back to a specific moment in time because in the layer that had all the beef in it, they also found telephone books. They realized that the beef was thrown out during a time of economic recess. Why would people throw out expensive meat during a time of crisis? They bought it in such large quantities because they assumed it would only become more expensive or cease to be available completely. So people started buying beef in bulk but often had no means of storing it appropriately. They were forced to throw out the beef that had turned bad.
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Garbage is often a better indicator of human behavior than human communication. In New York, an ad agency was commissioned to find out about the eating habits of the residents of a certain area. The residents were asked to complete a questionnaire about their diet and eating habits and it was established from the answers, that people in that neighborhood were eating extremely healthy. Yet, when a supermarket in the area started offering healthier food options, nobody bought it. It was only by analyzing the garbage of the area that they found out people were not really all that dedicated to a healthy lifestyle. Waste doesn’t lie, humans do.

Trash Talks: what our garbage reveals about ourselves

Philosopher Elizabeth V. Spelman on the surprising relation between us and the things we throw away.

There is a great deal of buzz about trash: books, conferences and online journals are awash in talk about it. The Discard Studies website, for example, provides a comprehensive and regularly updated list of sources.
One of the main reasons for such widespread attention is that human habits of trash-making around the world have come to pose enormous problems for human and non-human life and the health of the planet — though it would be disingenuous to suggest that such problems are new or that they are evenly distributed across neighborhoods, communities, nations: for example, the USA regularly dumps its electronic waste in countries such as China and Ghana, multiplying whatever ill effects are produced by those countries’ own waste-making. My aim here, however, is not to join the pressing and important conversations about the growing menace of trash. Rather, it is to bring attention to the many ways in which references to trash have played a crucial role in our attempts to make sense of our lives and to articulate relations among us. We may want trash to be out of our immediate sight and smell, but not very far out of mind. I develop these ideas in considerable detail in Trash Talks: Revelations in the Rubbish, and offer a taste of some of my reflections in what follows.

A synonym for useless

“Trash” is just one member of a family of terms we use to describe that which we have judged to be useless, never or no longer of value. We have ready at hand a trash lexicon to mark our disgust, disdain, or distance: “Those oranges belong in the garbage.” “This computer is a piece of junk.” “What a colossal waste of time.” Or the fierce battle cry of the warrior philosopher, “That argument is pure rubbish.”
But our invocations of trash, waste, garbage etc. go far beyond snarky judgments to the effect that something or someone is useless or contemptible. We appear to have found it quite useful to call upon the rich resources of the trash lexicon in our accounts of the kinds of beings we are and how we are positioned vis-à-vis one another. Many distinctions among us that we seem in no hurry to give up turn out to track differences in our connections to trash, waste, rubbish and their siblings. “Trash Talks” explores six such distinctions, identified as those between the (1) the Knower and the Known, (2) the Fat Cats and the Stragglers, (3) the Scathed and the Unscathed, (4) the Designed and the Disorderly, (5) the Enlightened and the Unenlightened, and (6) Reliable and Unreliable Judges. (Readers are welcome, indeed encouraged, to add to the list.)

  1. The Knower and the Known.
    Want to get the dirt on someone, to ferret out something about them they’d probably prefer not to be known? Celebrity watchers and narcotics agents know how to do it (often testing legal limits to such scrutiny): comb through their trash. That will put the scoundrels in their place!
  2. The Fat Cats and the Stragglers.
    Eager to create and maintain superior social status? Make it as obvious as you can to others that you can afford to be wasteful—to have much more than you need, by any reasonable standard, and to employ rafts of workers clearly engaged in taking care of your goods. That anyway was the recipe Thorstein Veblen, in his classic (though not uncontested) “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, saw put to use by members of the leisure class in late 19th and early 20th centuries, a recipe some current observers see in the building of what colloquially have come to be called McMansions (not to mention McTrumps). The point of such display is not, of course, to invite others actually go through your trash (see [i]) but to make sure they have no doubts about your enjoying an economic standing that allows you to be wasteful. This is not to say that all those having such standing engage in conspicuous consumption, only that such consumption often has been a handy way of establishing relative position.
  3. The Scathed and the Unscathed.
    Whether considered contaminated on account of the nature of their work, or assigned such work on account of the alleged impurity of their very being, sanitation workers around the world rarely are lauded as valuable members of their communities. Indeed they often are treated as disposable themselves, despite the indispensability of their labor to the health and general well being of those communities. Examples are hardly limited to the Dalit (formerly the “untouchables”) in India, as Robin Nagle recently has made clear in her “Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City”.
  4. The Designed and the Disorderly.
    Charles Darwin reluctantly but ineluctably came to believe that the wastefulness he observed in nature was at odds with the idea that this world is the work of an intelligent designer. The tension he experienced is alive in current debates between many evolutionary theorists and a hearty coterie of proponents of Intelligent Design. Part of what sometimes seems to be at stake is the kind of account we are to give of our species: are we the exquisite product of a fabulously intelligent designer, or just another event in nature’s aleatory, wantonly wasteful parade?
  5. The Enlightened and the Unenlightened.
    Plato and the Buddha warned humankind that dissatisfaction is a steady companion of desire. Though neither of them addressed worries about the trash likely to be created as a result of such dissatisfaction, they certainly wouldn’t be surprised by our prodigious production of refuse, and no doubt would be alarmed by the extent to which dissatisfaction’s star has risen: hyper-consumerist societies count on consumers’ eventually ceasing to be pleased with their purchases.
  6. Reliable and Unreliable judges.
    Some of us know waste when we see it, others of us don’t — or so it is alleged — and the stakes involved in establishing the category into which you fall can be very high. In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1674), at the root of Eve’s disobedient plucking of the forbidden fruit is her confident belief that she is a better judge than God of what constitutes waste: she’s no fool, she knows that surely the proper use of the fruit is for it to be eaten, for its potential not to be lost. God, the story goes, disagreed; bye-bye Eden. In John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government” (1690), the implication is clear that settlers from afar are entitled to property rights over territory occupied by the “wretched inhabitants” of the Americas because the latter fail to see, Locke insisted, that land that is not cultivated is going to waste, its potential unrealized.

Trash disposal, in 1972. Not much has changed.

Trash disposal, in 1972. We still rely on trash as a reference to distinguish the superior and the inferior.


It is not surprising that terms used to denote the disvalued and decommissioned show up in efforts meant to establish that some people or things are superior to other people or things, whether that superiority be epistemic (in terms of knowledge or of judgment); social/economic; or metaphysical (in terms of the very nature of states of being). We may be insistent upon keeping trash and waste and their siblings as far away as possible (for example, on the shores of people we judge to be less worthy specimens of humanity than ourselves), but we maintain quite intimate connections with trash, waste and their relatives to the extent that we rely on reference to them to do the dirty work of trying to drive home invidious distinctions between the superior and inferior, the better and the worse, the worthy and the unworthy.
We don’t seem any more ready to give up those projects than we are to stop trashing our communities and our planet.

"Trash is a snapshot of our life"

Photographer Gregg Segal portrayed friends and strangers lying in seven days of their own garbage. Between polished eggshells and used syringes he found a lot of shame, pride and contradiction.

Gregg Segal is an American photographer based in California. See more of his work on his website.

Gregg Segal is an American photographer based in California. See more of his work on his website.


With this project, you portray something that most people don’t think about too much: trash. It is an undesired byproduct of something we want and yet it tells us a lot about how we live, consume and who we are. Was that the idea?
Yes, trash is in a way instant archaeology, giving us a glimpse at our value-system. It is a snapshot of our way of life. Trash defines us. Where you shop and what you eat reveal your socio-economic standing. Hopefully in 100 or 200 years, people will look back and think “can you believe how much trash that society produced?”.
Looking at the pictures, the characterization of the subjects is done by showing the garbage they produced over seven days. How important was it to you, that the people lay down in their trash?
As you said, we usually disassociate us from the trash we produce and my idea was to go against that and make a graphic connection between the trash and the people responsible for producing it. The message is pretty straightforward: You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.
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Despite all the filthiness depicted in the pictures, the subjects are usually portrayed quite glamorously and not derogatorily.
Yes, despite the heavy subject, the pictures are meant to be looked at and enjoyed. Just because the context is such a serious or yukky one, doesn’t mean the pictures should be ugly. Contradictions and opposites make for compelling pictures.
In most pictures, the person really fits and matches the items of trash spread around it. Were there instances where you were surprised by a person’s trash?
The problem is that some people probably edited their garbage to portray themselves in a certain light. That was disappointing but also interesting because it really showed to me how trash can shape the impression we want people to have of us. There was one guy who even cleaned his garbage. He came and brought eggshells that he had cleaned for the occasion. He didn’t want to appear messy or slackerish. Another person was the exact opposite and we found used syringes and tampons in her garbage. Another person brought a milkshake but it smelled like rotten chicken. It was interesting to see how people dealt with the disgust-factor of their trash: does it bother them to show the nasty reality or do they want to polish it?
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Is there a picture that resonates better with the audience than the rest?
That is a very subjective choice because everybody identifies with something else, but I found that the pictures showing middle- or especially upper-class citizens and families in their trash to really capture people’s attention. It’s one thing to see a poor person lying in trash but to see a rich family in that surrounding – you can’t help but look and ponder the contradiction of the image. The more money you have, the easier it is to distance yourself from the ugliness of the world.
Yes, but trash is something that all humans share. Some might be able to keep it out of their life, others live in it or of it, but we all produce it. It is one of life’s common denominators.
Very true. I would be interested to see the results if I would replicate this project in some other countries or in some other time even. 200 years ago, people just did not produce a lot of trash. There was no packaging, nothing like that. We all produce trash but it differs greatly. Also the awareness to the problem. The project received much more attention in Europe than over here in the US because I think that in Europe, there is a feeling of “we produce this together, we deal with it together”. Here, people think that they can do however they see fit.
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You and your family are also portrayed in the series. What made you also include yourself?
I don’t just want to point my finger at others and pretend like I don’t produce any trash. I also contribute to the problem. The real problem is awareness. It is easy to forget about your impact on the planet’s well-being. Consider how many people go and grab a plastic cup and drink from a water dispenser. They use that cup for maybe five seconds but it will harm the environment for many years to come. There is a complete imbalance between the usefulness of some items to us and the damage they do to the planet.
Were you interested in that topic before you embarked on this project?
Very much so, that lead me to the project in the first place. Even as a kid, I was amazed by the fact that people just put all their garbage in a bag and then a truck would come and make it disappear. I never understood where it went. It still amazes me today. Of course I know by now, but there is so much about garbage removal and disposal that many people are simply very ignorant about. It is a common misperception that recycling can fully solve the problem. The energy needed to recycle a bottle of plastic is so high that it again damages the planet in some other way. There is no easy fix.
Do you think that is easier to educate or raise awareness with a project like this than with a shocking and polemic campaign that would show dead animals or starving children on a landfill?
This project is definitely subtler and it doesn’t immediately hold you responsible for the planet’s problems. It’s easier to discuss with people if you don’t point the finger at them. But I do of course hope that people identify with the project and thereby the problem.

Trash

The “Triangle of Death” is an area in Southern Italy, a region between three different municipalities where the local population’s life expectancy is two years lower than in the rest of the country. The cause? Trash.
For years, the region’s trash collection had been slow and inefficient, resulting from a mix of maxed-out landfills and government inertia. Then the mafia stepped in, began to offer speedy and cheap collection. And the trash disappeared: They burnt in illegal dumpsites and with very little regard to the hazardous fumes or contamination. Today, with the garbage crisis still ongoing, the resulting pollution has started to take its toll on locals, with more and more of them dying from related diseases.
The story is a poignant reminder that trash doesn’t just go away – it lingers, in one form or another, somewhere out of sight. But even the way we talk about it shows how little we think about that: We speak of “throwing something away”, without addressing the away, blindly counting on the fact that anything we want to get rid of can be put into a bag, thrown into a bin, and get carted off.
In chemistry, the principle of mass conservation states that in a closed system, mass cannot be destroyed but only be rearranged in space. When you think about our world and all the undesirable objects in it, that law seems to apply quite well: We may have constructed intricate systems to get rid of stuff, but that stuff only ever goes somewhere else: A bin, a landfill, or into the hot Italian summer air.
So it’s really our struggle to combat this reality which needs to be looked at. Trash is a trail we leave in the world: Showing not what we want but precisely what we do not want. We find it so abhorrent that it has even become synonymous with anything undesirable: Bad books, terrible movies, or even entire groups of people.
The dictionary lists “refuse” as a synonym for trash, and that term indeed seem to fit better: Refusal stands for the unwillingness to do or to accept something. And trash is exactly that: A very elaborate way of saying no.