Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why trash? A personal statement for today's Michigan Daily

Sorry I haven't posted in a couple of days; a dear friend of mine is visiting from Germany and I haven't really sat down to think much. Anyway, I was contacted by The Michigan Daily to write a piece for their "Green Issue." It was published today, and I wanted to post that. It is a synthesis of many of my thoughts from the past year. (But here is a sneak preview of what I'm thinking about for the next few posts - purchasing vs. consumption, durable change, strategies of action - what do you do when you are faced with a conundrum?, ethics in research design, Pareto optimality...)


Why trash?

Look around you — on the street corner, in the Fishbowl, in your kitchen. Waste is all around us. It can be viewed as involuntary and unconscious, as Adrianna Bojrab described in her article “Commit to reducing waste” in the October 21 edition of The Michigan Daily.  But at the same time, I would also argue that waste is entirely voluntary. The mere existence of waste and trash points to a choice that we as a society are making. Since it's easy to buy into the status quo, we trick ourselves into thinking there is no choice.

Since March 29, 2010, I have been trying to live a trash-free life. I consider everything except toilet paper and food scraps as trash — that means recyclables are trash, too. I use bags and containers that I owned on March 29 as my only transporting and packaging materials. If I do “need” something, I only buy it from a second-hand store. I refuse before reducing, reusing or recycling.

I realized quickly that most of our trash on a daily basis comes from food packaging, and that buying groceries, flour, fruit and beans in bulk will save much trash from ending up in landfills. I shop at the Farmer's Market and the People's Food Co-op almost exclusively. I carry around a set of silverware and ask the server at BTB not to wrap my burritos in foil. Since March 29, I have accumulated around three pounds of trash, mostly receipts, the tops off of reusable milk jars and stickers off of fruit.

There are, however, other things that I failed to anticipate, such as a broken Pyrex pie dish, and a sparkler from my friend’s graduation party. Each piece of trash I now have has a story for me. Each piece embodies an experience and many lives. Not only mine, but also those of the human and natural resources that went into making them.

I grew up in Mumbai, India, a bustling, multicultural, multilingual city of close to 20 million people. Just like any mega city, the grime there is visible, tangible and never more than a few feet away from you. Yet, I grew up there during a time in which over-consumption hadn't really made its way into the mainstream Indian culture. I am proud to say my parents afforded my sister and me a simple but incredibly happy life, without the truly unnecessary trinkets and gadgets that seem to clutter homes and trash cans nowadays.

After moving to Ann Arbor in 2003 to start an undergraduate degree, nothing much changed for me in the way I chose to live. Living within means and constraints  — personal, financial, social and environmental  — is something I value. I believe this is the responsible way to live. My first laptop from 2003 is still the same one I use today; it gets the job done. The clothes I wear, as old as they may be, keep me covered, warm and comfortable. New things always come with their tags, bubble wrap and fancy bags — things we will “trash” within days.

When I go to a second-hand store, I choose not to see "old" forks, "refused" t-shirts and "outdated" furniture. Instead, I choose to see all the material, energy, water, time and other resources we have invested in perfectly functional and working objects, objects of our humanity. I don't mean to say that there isn't merit in novelty and fashion. What I am saying is that we should make full use of what we have already, before going out and purchasing something new, untouched and virgin.

Trash is visceral — we feel trash, we smell it, touch it and hear it. When we go out to dinner, we use napkins to wipe our hands. When we crack open a bottle of wine, we rip off the wrapping, hiding the cork and throwing it out. On game day, the yard of a college fraternity house is littered with plastic cups. We hear the early trash collectors with their huge trucks at the crack of dawn, crushing pounds of trash. A trash bin filled to the brim releases a putrid smell that just makes us want to walk away.

Indeed, trash makes its presence felt far more than do our other foes, like greenhouse gases. Take carbon dioxide, for example: When we flip on the light switch, the room is illuminated here, but the odorless, colorless carbon dioxide is emitted elsewhere. How many of us can visualize such an invisible threat?

What does 385 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mean? That means that out of a million, there are 999,615 parts of other gases. Greenhouse gases suffer from a lack of perception. But that doesn't mean trash and greenhouse gases aren't related.

The social, economic and philosophical structures in place that cause the formation of trash and greenhouse gases are the same. Trash is just a different manifestation of the same problem — consumption without limits, carelessness about the future and disrespect for the ecosystems of the present. Trash stems from the choices we make about what to buy and how to live. Trash is about greenhouse gas emissions, toxins in water and heavy metals and dioxins released from incinerators. We have structured our societies and interactions around trash and waste, and have accepted their existence.

No one wants to be around trash, and that’s why places in Canada and the entire city of Toronto ship their trash and waste, more than 400 truckloads per day, to Michigan for dumping. I like to think of trash as water: It flows like streams and rivers along the path of least resistance (those willing to deal with it for the least amount of money) and ends up in puddles, lakes and oceans (landfills). New York City ships most of its waste to New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina and Ohio — far away places. Many of the semi trucks you see on the highway are actually just full of trash.

Trash is big business, upwards of a $50 billion per year industry, and people have a vested interest in the generation of trash. Yes, in some ways, my project to stop making trash “negatively” affects someone's family and someone's job, in these "tough economic times." But inherently, any activism or choice changes the fabric of what is acceptable and what isn't, which inherently affects our communities and economies.

Many people have asked me about my social life: am I able to go out and be with friends? Where do I go to eat? Am I just a sore thumb when I am with a group of people? In the end, it's about sacrifice. My friend told me the other day that the act of sacrificing is to make something sacred. What have I sacrificed? Not much, to me at least — fast food, packaged pasta and a new iPhone. But what have I made sacred? I have made my Earth, my surroundings and people that deal with the consequences of our behavior more sacred to me.

What does a world without trash look like, and how do our interactions need to change to move toward that vision? Is trash a natural outcome of “modernization?” What would happen if we had to carry around the trash we produced rather than throw it “away?”

Ann Arbor, as many of your friends and family have probably noted to you, is a unique environment that is set up for each one of us to live experimentally and experientially. We have all of the social resources set up in a way that we can choose a project and live it. I would encourage you to think about those things you take for granted, those things that are unconscious to you, raise them into consciousness and act on them. Maybe you can try living trash-free for a week, or maybe even a day. I am waiting to hear your story.


  1. Hey Darshan,

    I really like this idea of reducing waste as much as possible. In fact, I think we have a moral obligation to reduce our waste. However, I have to question your sincerity. Why do you not consider food scraps and toilet paper to be waste? I see no reason why throwing out food scraps is OK but throwing out other items made from the same raw materials is NOT OK. We need to think of ways to use the food scraps productively. Perhaps we could use the food scraps for toilet paper. Or, it may be better to purchase a few rags and just wash the feces off of them when we're done.

    Either way, I just can't help but feel guilty when I flush an entire brick (of paper) down the toilet. Isn't there a better way to go about the use of toilet paper?? What do you think?

  2. John,

    Thank you for your thoughts. Well, I do consider soap and toilet paper waste, but those are the two things I have just not accounted for. I do not live in a closed water system, and therefore cannot recover the soap. Toilet paper, well, maybe I should have gone with using water. I grew up using water in India, but I guess I haven't much thought about using a bottle of water at toilets in the West. You are right.

    I compost the food scraps.

    What about you? What is your story?