The Mythology of Trash
Trash is a mythological invention of the human mind. The idea of something on the planet being useless and waste is one born only in the eyes of the madman. What is actually in existence on the planet that has no purpose to serve? Why do we feed the fabled trash monster?
This is a puzzle that I have pondered for more than a few years. I believe the seed of such a myth is borne into human civilization from our own shortcomings. Laziness, lack of knowledge, and lower consciousness has led us to mistakenly see the world subjectively: “I find no purpose in this item; therefore there is no purpose in this item”. We have built into our society the attitudes of tossing things to the side without a care. This attitude has permeated our environmental, our societal, even our philosophical realities for hundreds of years.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the age of the Trash Deity. This fabled creature has risen to power on Earth, and threatens to devastate our very ability to exist. The illusory myth we have nurtured and given life to is here to take the life of its creators unless we take immediate action.
Shel Silverstein wrote a children’s poem called “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” in which a little girl would not take the garbage out. I remember being fascinated with that poem as a child. Garbage piles to the ceiling and refuse clear across the United States were the fault of this little girl, and I wanted so badly for her to take the garbage out before that happened! Coffee grounds, banana peels, cottage cheese, even “gloppy glumps of cold oatmeal” piled high as she cooked and ate.
Certainly we are all accustomed to every item tossed in her garbage. No matter how many times I read it, she never realized the consequences in time and her fate was finally sealed. Consumed by her own garbage, Miss Stout was heard from no more. Even as a young girl this outlandish poem stood out to me as an ominous prophecy about where our own culture is headed.
What defines environmental trash in this country? Disposable items line the shelves at nearly every store. From aluminum cans to plastic bottles to diapers, everything can be purchased in a single-use form. Perhaps one of the superpowers of this mythical trash beast is convenience. In addition to individual trash items, there is medical waste, industrial waste, solid waste, water waste, and waste for every occasion. Trash has been dumped into the ground, onto the ground, into water sources, and released into the air. Some people have even proposed shooting trash into space, although thankfully it hasn’t been accepted as a regular method of waste removal.
Humans have found a way to transform building blocks that have been on the planet for the length of Earth’s existence into a form that renders them permanently useless, or so we seem to believe. In 2011 there were 25 billion paper cups thrown away in the United States. That means 9.4 million trees were grown for decades, harvested, shipped, processed into paper cups, only to be rendered useless and trash after a single use. What were those building blocks before they were trees? Surely there is a future for them on the planet?
I recognize that humans are currently creating new substances at a rate faster than we are capable of comprehending our consequences. The water we drink, the air we breathe, the earth we cling to, are all being polluted at alarming rates through our extensive Frankenstein efforts on every front of progress. The products and byproducts of our experiments seem to be capable of lending credence to a concept of waste or trash.
Yet, nature is still the mother of inventors on our planet. Our greatest triumphs and our most devastating defeats pale in comparison to what happens through natural occurrences outside of the sphere of human influence.
According to the EPA, Americans throw away 14 million tons of “food waste” each year. Let’s review the definition of food: “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth”. Now let’s remember the definition of waste: “material that is not wanted; the unusable remains or byproducts of something”. So, what this tells us is that food waste is basically defined as “unwanted nutritious material that helps to maintain life and growth for people, animals, and/or plants”. Tell me again how that makes sense?
No matter how many different forms of matter develop on the planet, the amount of matter remains the same. All life on the planet seeks material to maintain life and grow. How could food ever be considered waste? Redistribution of material seems to be the logical choice for a solution to food waste. Deeming it unfit for use anywhere would be the illogical conclusion, yet the one many seem to support.
Nature has no trash. If one form of something no longer serves a purpose, other forms assist in the transformation into a new purpose. Recently students at Yale were even able to demonstrate that fungi are capable of using plastic as a food source. More recently fungi has been discovered/developed that can use plastics as a food source and then fruit mushrooms that in turn can be a food source for humans. Everything on the planet is made of building blocks that have been here the whole time. There is nothing new on Earth; we may be dressing things up a little different but the blocks are the same! Yet we delude ourselves into thinking there is such a thing as disposable, that we can throw away those items that are no longer capable of being used.
Cardboard is estimated to take up 31% of landfills in the United States. How much cardboard comes through your own home per year? It is doubtful you don’t end up with a pile of it annually. What do you do with it? Send it for recycling? Burn it? Throw it away? Packaging often even combines multiple items that you throw away, making for a cardboard and plastic pile in your garbage bins that you are now stuck with. Do these items really need to be sacrificed to the Trash Deity, never to be considered useful on the planet by humans for the foreseeable future?
One way consumers have found to deal with the stream of disposable cardboard they are plagued with is composting. Within 6-8 months and relatively low upkeep, cardboard can be composted into fertilizer for the garden. Suddenly, this item that was misdirected into the trash mythologies can be redeemed, born again into the very real world of nature! We all need food to eat, and it’s no secret that quality, fresh produce has a demand higher than supply in many instances. It’s also part of the (dying) mythology of trash that you can only garden or compost in rural areas. If you live in an urban area you can work with your neighbors to have a cardboard composting pile to supply your community garden. Many hands make light work is a very true statement!
Glass is a waste item that has been instrumental in beginning to debunk the mythology of trash. Glass is “100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity”. This means there is clearly never a reason to consider glass trash (remember, trash doesn’t really exist)! In the home, glass items can be repurposed for storage, arts and crafts, sustainable building, and more. In society, glass can be recycled again and again to replace raw materials and be able to continue producing glass for use in every industry.
Reduction is always encouraged in the fight against waste. Purchasing smart instead of convenient includes cutting out the use of many disposable products. Keeping 5 gallon water containers in the kitchen and refilling washable bottles is a viable alternative to purchasing a disposable bottle of water at every hint of thirst. Another viable suggestion includes purchasing items in bulk and then storing them in glass jars left over for the garbage bins. The cost of items is noticeably reduced, your contribution to the trash myth is reduced, and the likelihood of mice, ants, or other unwelcome guests who look in your cabinets for food is reduced. One thing packaging tends to leave out is the ability to protect your food from those guests!
Consumers who apply these types of tactics find the added reward of a reduction in purchasing costs, as items that can be used multiple times save a rather large percentage of cost over the life of the item. How we spend our money ultimately shapes the market, the laws, and the products available on the shelves. If you stopped purchasing just one $5 item per week that is disposable (like a 12 pack of soda bottles), that is $260 per year voting differently in the market (as well as money in your pocket).
What if your entire local county made that shift? A county of 25,000 people would be altering $6.5 million in consumer purchases. With over 3,100 counties in the United States, no matter where you live you can make a difference. All it takes is the person reading this sentence to do things differently and encourage your friends to do the same.
You don’t have to be extraordinary to make a few simple changes in your home that will make a big difference in the collective. We do live in a world where these items are not going away, even though we can reduce them. However, we can definitely be part of a solution that keeps these items in the cycle rather than discarded to a hole in the earth or floating in the oceans.
The environmental contributions to the religion of trash are staggering, and obvious. Perhaps the contributions on a societal and philosophical level are a bit more subtle, but they are equally staggering. How many times have you seen a homeless person begging on the streets, only to do your best to banish the memory of such a sad sight? How many stories have you heard about combat veterans who come back to civilian life only to find a hollow existence, outcast by the very society they fought in the name of? There are abandoned children, abandoned spouses, abandoned pets, and abandoned elders. People have become part of the refuse. In fact, most of American society views elders who live beyond their capability to live on their own as worthy of a life in a nursing home, cared for by a paid stranger. This attitude of waste has permeated so far that people look forward to retirement away from their families, spending their days playing golf and shuffleboard in Florida and only seeing family intermittently.
These concepts are so far buried into our understanding of a “normal” life that we all prescribe to them on different levels. Our homes are broken with divorce rates skyrocketing to be more common that homes with two parents over the past several decades. Unwanted pregnancies are a topic for debate in the right of a woman’s choice versus a religious belief against it, but even in the name it screams for the myth of trash rather than any other religion.
Infants are to be adored and cuddled for the first 6 weeks of life, only to be discarded to daycares and then the school system for the next 18 years. For the average American child, their upbringing is provided by those other than family members 40 hours per week. At just 5 years old, this child has spent almost ten thousand hours away from home. If you factor in the amount of the time the child spends sleeping while home, you will find that at least half of the child’s waking life is given to others in the parents’ pursuits of money. This is considered to be normal and acceptable in the life of an American.
As an American mother who home schools and refuses to participate in the upbringing of my children by others, I am considered to be a curiosity at worst and a minority at best. I am a novelty and a threat in the mythology of trash.
How we interact with each other and how we communicate is also molded in the way of the trash religion. Listen to some of the pop culture’s lyrics or watch a Hollywood movie. The idolatry of the “little plastic castle” abounds! Clothing, decorations, vehicles, even girlfriends or boyfriends can be expendable. If someone hurts you, just discard them, you can find someone who is worth more value. The message is clear: Anything and anyone can be disposable in our quest for happiness. Our very self esteem is permeated with disposable products such as razors, makeup, and fake nails. Holidays are even embellished with disposable products such as greeting cards, wrapping paper, single-use decorations, and more.
In fact, individual and collective participation in these trash sacraments can directly affect self-esteem, societal status, and more. Our very celebrations have been infiltrated across the religions; no stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of everything trash.
Stop prescribing to the religion that supports the existence of trash! Everything on the planet is part of the cycle. Reduction in the creation of trash is only the second step; comprehending our participation in the mythology of trash is the first step. Purchasing habits, reusing habits, and recycling habits can all be naturally altered with little effort from the individual. Analyzing our relationship to those around us can lead to healthy social habits and higher self-esteem. Recognizing that trash does not really exist gives us the ability to support a trash free existence.
We can’t change the way society operates, but we can change the way we operate. Nothing on this planet is actually trash. There are things we know how to continue using, and there are things we are still learning how to repurpose. Nature is our ally in this and our actions based on natural observations will be our savior. Taking the garbage out is not discarding anyone or anything. It is working to keep everyone and everything in the cycle of life, and taking the concept of garbage out of our thinking. No matter what we create, the building blocks must remain in use on Earth.
The sooner we are able to see beyond the illusion of waste, the better our chances of not ending up like Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout:
Poor Sarah met an awful fate
That I cannot right now relate
Because the hour is much too late
But children, remember Sarah Stout,
And always take the garbage out.”