Garbage In, Garbage Out

We Are The Only Species That Overconsumes - And The Only One With A Trash Problem

June 19, 2009|By Alexander E. Hooke

"Mankind is ... a manifold opening of the possibilities of growth and an infinite capacity for wasteful consumption." - Georges Bataille (1967)

There is something distinctly human about trash. Zoologists and entomologists have found many connections between humans and animal behavior, primate psychology, even the DNA of fruit flies. So far, though, there is no evidence that hordes of bees, colonies of ants or herds of elephants are endangered by their own junk. Only human civilizations pose such a threat to themselves.

What to do about our garbage is a problem that has vexed Baltimore at the highest levels of government in recent months. Soon city residents will learn to live with their trash a couple of extra days, now that Mayor Sheila Dixon and the City Council have decided to reduce trash removal to once a week. The outcry has been widespread, as if the city will soon be swallowed up by rats, raccoons and infectious bacteria. Such scenarios are far-fetched, though the nuisance factor is undeniable.

It is dubious that this policy will have any substantive effect on the municipal budget. The $7 million to be saved will easily diminish when the city begins increasing its inspections and enforcement of the new law. With more recycling dates, opportunities for trash scofflaws will be plentiful and tempting. Anyone hosting a backyard crab feast on a summer weekend is unlikely to tolerate the stench of discarded shells for more than a day, law or no law.

Nonetheless, this policy could be a cultural bellwether. After all, trash is one of humanity's defining characteristics. Estimates vary, but a typical urban resident produces about five times his body weight in refuse annually. This is due not only to our immense consumption but also the bags, bubble wraps, Styrofoam blocks and cardboard boxes that protect the things we buy. Electronic gadgets are so tightly packaged that even the nimblest fingers and most patient minds can face a headache-inducing venture. To grab an aspirin for the headache means to penetrate a box, twist off cap and sealed label - more future offerings to our garbage heap.

Awash in trash, we use it as noun, verb and adjective. Trash talking can involve intimidation, braggadocio or simple rubbish. Rowdies and college students on spring break are known for trashing a room or locale. To call someone trashy is to question his or her moral standing or personal hygiene. And none of us likes to be treated as trash, whether by a grumpy boss or snobby neighbor.

There is a branch in the social sciences called garbology. Its research relies on the principle that many of our habits and secrets can be found in wastebaskets and trash cans. Discarded items can open a window to someone's finances, love life, medical needs and family foibles, as well as indulgences and bad habits.

Trash might be civilization's most lasting accomplishment. More than sacred texts, beautiful temples and monuments, or great works of art and music, man-made plastic promises to survive nuclear wars and global warming. According to David Ferris, a writer for Sierra magazine, scientists are learning that minute elements of plastic seem never to completely disintegrate. Nurdles, the basic components of plastic, are now found in the digestive systems of fish, in the nests of hermit crabs, in the excrement of fur seals. Should aliens descend upon this planet in a millennium or two, they will infer that an intelligent species once inhabited the place - not from such as evidence as museums and libraries, but from nurdles sparkling in dung heaps and animal dwellings.

Anthropologists note that one of the more endearing social lubricants is the gift. The ritual of potlatch - periodic sharing of meals and valuables - is often highlighted because reciprocity among different individuals is expected and encouraged.

The same cannot be said of trash. Trash involves hierarchy, not circularity. Someone lower on the social order handles the bulk of it; the poorest of the poor live amid the refuse of the rich. If residents volunteered to take turns and haul each other's garbage cans to a common corner, trucks could save considerable time from negotiating the narrow alleys. And we could easily have trash pickups twice a week.

But trash is a tricky business. We don't want our neighbors sneaking a peek into our secret lives (or possibly stealing our identities). And we certainly don't want to expose our own infinite capacity for wasteful consumption.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His e-mail is

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