Posted July 30th 2010 at 11:48 am by
in Trash People

Trash People

Grandpa's ShedThis is my grandfather’s house in Northern California.  My little brother (left) and I enjoyed my grandfather’s trash treasures.  McDonald family photo collection.

I like trash a lot.  I am not just talking about easy to identify recyclables like PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles, stacks of newspapers and soda cans, I am also referring to apple cores, food packaging, agricultural waste, and get this, even human waste.  There are a lot of us trash people in the world and when we manage to bump into one another there is always a rush of recognition.  On a deep level we share a sort of mutual, in-born sixth sense that waste, whether it is a pile of abandoned lumber, a heap of beer bottles, or a banana peel, is an extremely valuable resource.  Recently, one of my CoLab colleagues cackled as she questioned me about what she perceived to be my rather odd relationship with garbage, so I decided to take a closer look at moments in my life that somehow illuminate my way of thinking about waste.

Here’s what I came up with:

When I was growing up on the West Coast I spent many burning hot afternoons at my grandfather’s cottage in the countryside of California’s San Joaquin Valley.   My grandpa collected all kinds of junk and carefully stacked it atop rotting bureaus and in a broken down Ford pick up truck parked inside an old shed behind the outhouse.  He liked to padlock the shed. Once in a while, however, he would forget .  On those particular occasions, I would make it my business to creep inside the shed and sort through the treasures of rubbish: lizards and snakes hiding under planks of wood, glass doorknobs that looked like oversized gems, wooden boxes packed with old coins.

In seventh grade I went to a huge, public junior high school where I had gym class with Joy Peck, second daughter to our garbage man.  Joy was busty and vivacious and I marveled at her colorful wardrobe which, including her many brassieres, came from local resident trashcans.

In college, the evening before garbage collection, my roommate and I would make our way across Central Park to the Upper East Side and scour trash tossed out by wealthy Manhattanites.  Garbage picks from those days still furnish my home, including a couple of dining room chairs and even a headboard that, once assembled, resembles Babar the elephant’s colorful twin bed.

For a number of years my children and I lived in the Adirondack Mountains where we had to pile our garbage in the mini-van, drive it to the dump, and pay for each bag of trash we tossed onto a mounting hill of refuse.  Frequently confronted with a visual representation of how much waste a small town can amass, I began to really focus on the impact of world garbage accumulation.

I toyed with the idea of owning a grease car for years.  About eight months ago I traded my Subaru for a 1987 300SL Mercedes.  It is a rush to know that I power my car with filtered oil from Boston restaurants.

CoLab fellow Libby McDonald, utilizes MIT technology and knowledge to assist marginalized populations in their efforts to create small waste-to-energy and recycling businesses in Brazil, Colombia, and Nicaragua.

One response to “Trash People”

  1. Sabrina says:

    Libby, I think that an appreciation for trash is the hallmark of an environmentalist. It’s about looking at the lifecycle of the objects in our lives, how were the resources extracted from the earth, manufactured, transported, utilized, recycled, reused, and disposed of? It makes ordinarily simple tasks like shopping and throwing things away more difficult. On the human waste part, I spent four years educating K-12 students on what happens to our waste when we flush it down a toilet. Because in many communities, during a heavy rain or snowmelt event, that waste ends up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. And sometimes it’s just piped straight into the nearest body of water. We took kids into underground combined sewer overflow storage tanks as educational field trips where the smell was terrible. Like your grandfather’s cottage did for you, I think that we made a lasting impression on those kids’ understanding of waste. Your reflection really highlights how more should be done at an early age to expand people’s understanding of the waste that we create and its environmental impacts.