Last night, I had the pleasure of joining NYPIRG for the “Wasted: Photographic & Sculptural Works Addressing Solid Waste” event at Pratt’s Student Union in which students displayed a week’s worth of the material they collected for disposal. Each of the students who participated spoke about their experiences, and Kristina Andreotta and I made some introductory remarks about some of the social and environmental consequences of our disposal. Here are my remarks:
Thank you for inviting me to join you this evening. I am an environmental historian concerned with how we define and manage waste, and how those decisions affect the environment and society. My classes include The Sustainable Core, Production Consumption and Waste, and Power Pollution and Profit. In all of these classes, we consider how we create waste and how we might reduce waste in the future. One of the challenges is realizing that trash is more a verb than a noun. Nothing is innately trash; trash is a choice we have to dispose of all kinds of materials.
What I like about this event is you are making your waste disposal visible. One of the major themes in the history of waste is how we have developed practices to make our waste invisible. When we classify packaging, foods, and other goods as wastes, we then put this unwanted items in a garbage can or even a recycling bin. Once they are in the can, our relationship with that material comes to an end. Someone empties that can into a dumpster or another can, then a truck comes along and takes the disposed materials away. Where? We might follow the truck, but few people are that curious. What’s important is the waste is taken out of sight and out of mind. It might have consequences, but we don’t see them.
The only times we become aware of those consequences is when something is brought to our attention. Sometimes, this focus is environmental. Locally, litter on the sidewalk might bother us. Globally, we may be disturbed by media accounts of environmental damage. When Captain Charles Moore sailed his boat through the Pacific Ocean in 1997, he came across a mass of floating plastic debris. He discovered that this mass was larger than the state of Texas, and is one of several gigantic patches of plastic floating in the Earth’s oceans. This floating waste is killing several species of aquatic birds who mistake it for foods they can digest. The wandering albatross, the world’s largest bird of flight, may disappear in part due to this waste.
The social cost to our waste management practices is also significant. Handling garbage and recyclables is dangerous work. Waste may include old detergent bottles or cleansers that damage lungs, eyes, and skin. Broken metal and glass can cause wounds. Even the equipment used to process wastes poses hazards.
Last Saturday morning, Luis Camarillo was working at the Chambers Paper Fibres Corporation here in Brooklyn. He was loading paper into a truck when he fell in and was crushed by the truck’s hydraulic compactor. He was 18 years old. Unfortunately, stories like his are not rare. The waste trades have higher workplace accident incidence rates than the mining industry does. All too often in the United States, the workers who are hurt or killed are African American or Hispanic, because the most dangerous jobs in the trade are performed by African Americans and Hispanics. Most waste facilities in this country are located near or in African American or Hispanic communities. Our waste may go out of our sight, but it burdens other people and places. By keeping your waste in sight, you compel us to ask why we throw so much out of our lives and into vulnerable places. Thank you for doing this and thank you for inviting me to join you.