Garbage, junk, rubbish, waste, refuse, litter, debris…”trash.” We have become so accustomed to the everyday use of these words – “take out the garbage”; “don’t talk trash”; “this car is junk.” Not only do we use these words to describe our solid waste stream, but it has also become habit to use them as negative slang terms. Have you ever stopped to think about the psychology behind this? Well, I have certainly given it a lot of thought.
You may have noticed that I used the word “trash” in quotation marks a few times already. I do this because I believe part of our global pollution problem can be fought simply by the words we choose. In referring to something as garbage, junk, or trash, we are projecting negative feelings and emotions onto it. We don’t use these words to describe the people, food and things we like, right? In fact, reflecting on my lifetime, I have likely used these words most often in their negative slang form. The moment we call something “trash” we are immediately de-valuing it and also sending that message to others around us.
Of all the words that I began this post with, I feel that “waste” is the most accurate to describe what people are “throwing away.” My favorite definition of the word waste is the one that I feel most accurately describes the underlying cause behind our current litter and landfill conundrum – “Waste: To be consumed, spent or employed uselessly or without giving full value or being fully utilized or appreciated.” We are almost all guilty of this – if not everyday than at some point in our lives. The simple act of using a plastic fork and then tossing it in a trash bin IS wasting. Could that fork not have been washed and reused? Did we get the maximum value out of that resource? In so many cases with what we are throwing away, the answer is no. We do not create “trash” as a society – we create waste.
And, where is all this waste going? Again, you may have noticed my use of quotation marks around the words “throwing-away.” There is a phrase that has had immense consequences. Where is “away?” I will save you the definition on this one but suffice to say it’s a little vague. The University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems estimated that 262.4 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste were generated in 2015. Over half of this was sent to landfills and, even though a somewhat impressive 34% was reclaimed for recycling, this figure certainly does not account for the waste not recovered at all and lost directly to the environment – intentionally or not. As someone who has grown up on the most secluded island chain on Earth I have a unique perspective to this problem. Not only is our current state of waste disposal lacking in Hawai‘i, but, we are limited on space in addition to being in the path of a major Pacific Ocean current which delivers global waste onto our coastlines en masse. (See blog picture.) In addition to struggling with issues of landfills reaching maximum capacity, we have the added onslaught of foreign waste streams through our global waterways. Most things don’t “go away”. Rather, they accumulate into a larger problem – a problem than we can’t turn our backs to but need to face head on.
I believe it starts as simply as changing our vocabulary and then grows into a deeper perspective change. Although people often refer to my work as “trash to treasure” (and I often do use the hashtag myself) I really prefer to think of what I do as reclaiming, re-loving and re-inventing. For me, the word “trash” no longer has the meaning that is once did. My upcycling has led me to see the value in all materials around me and I can’t bring myself to refer to such things as garbage or rubbish anymore. I see so much of our discard stream as overlooked materials and a missed opportunity. I am now hoping that through my work and my story that I am able to inspire others around me to think the same.
Yes, I am horrified by the amount of litter and marine debris I see and I am also disappointed in my community’s current waste disposal and recycling programs. However, and more so, I see these as opportunities to create change – even a new economy – and show others that there are creative and simple solutions to such a seemingly overwhelming issue. I have resolved myself to no longer using the word “trash” but, instead, to opt for terms like “unrecyclables” or “underappreciated materials”. Using these types of words also forces me to have thoughts like “how could this be recycled?” or “could I appreciate this material more?” It is these small shifts in talking and thinking that have snowballed into larger changes for me in my life. I encourage and challenge you to think of times and places where you could do the same. And, although I don’t expect you to start washing and reusing things quite as much as I do, you may be surprised by the overlooked resources that you have been “throwing away” as “trash” all this time.
University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems MUNICIPAL SOLID WASTE FACTSHEET:
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Let's Talk Trash written by Mattie Mae Larson