Humans: Inherently wasteful, or good stewards? (And, why this question misses the point)

People are making more waste than ever before. The desire to luxuriate and waste is part of human nature. Humans are inherently wasteful. We’ve heard it before. But I doubt it.

So I did an experiment:

Rubbish Topographies installation view

Rubbish Topographies, 2011. Mixed media, used tea bags, trash. Touchstones Nelson, Nelson, BC, Canada.

Rubbish Topographies is a landscape made of donated trash. Although the pile of tea bags and cardboard may bring to mind the panicked proverbial that, “we make too much garbage!”, it symbolizes something further. Every tea bag was saved, dried, and delivered by my family, friends, friends-of-friends, coworkers, and even strangers from around the world. Rubbish Topographies is not meant to represent a pile of guilt, but is a quantitative testimony to how people will mind and care for their waste when there is an opportunity to reuse it.

Burned tea bags

Some tea bags bare the marks of their stewardship. These were dried on a wood stove.

Detail of Rubbush Topographies

Detail of Rubbish Topographies

One of the problems with asking for peoples’ used tea bags is that tea bags mold as quickly as a house on fire if they aren’t taken care of. You have to squeeze them out and/or dry them and store them in a cool, dry place. Then you have to mail them to me from England, Canada, or California, or meet me in Washington Square Park and hand over your zip lock baggie full of green tea. In other words, people have to spend time, effort, and cash to steward their waste. People dipped into waste buckets for their office mate’s bags. Others refused to send me their bags  once they dried them because they were so beautiful. They posted pictures of their tea bags on Facebook. Strangers sent me cards with their trash.

As such, Rubbish Topographies is a tea-bag tally-chart of individual commitment to, conscientiousness of, and generosity with their waste.

If you read Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (1999), or Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers (1960), you’ll see that, historically, people bucked against the introduction of disposable and single-use items, planned obsolescence, and “wastefulness” more generally. Packard’s waste makers aren’t individuals, they’re industries and businesses. A passage from Strasser’s historical research highlights the lengths people would go to avoid paper cups at the turn of the last century:

“Disposable paper cups met significant resistance. Most public places offered them in coin-operated dispensers, and some people were not willing to pay for what had once been free. Respectable travelers carried their own cups, available in metal and celluloid in a variety of collapsible and folding designs. Others reused paper cups from the trash or drank out of the public tanks, putting their lips to the faucet or using the cover of the tank as a cup. Some people protested against the vending machines: soldiers smashed paper cup dispensers in Washington’s Union Station during President Wilson’s inauguration in 1913.” (1999: 177)

he plastic trash Sabrina B could not avoid in her sixth week taking Beth Terry's Plastic Free Challenge.

Many people are still doing their best to avoid waste. Beth Terry, author of the blog MyPlasticFreeLife, is one of those people. She specifically aims to live without plastic waste. She finds it difficult, and has changed her lifestyle significantly because it is nearly impossible to avoid disposable plastic in the course of everyday life in the USA. But she’s decreased the amount of disposable plastic in her life to nearly nothing. You can take her challenge to do the same and see for yourself how difficult it is to maneuver the infrastructure of everyday life without needing something that comes in disposable plastic.

This situation changes the stakes and context of statements like “we make too much garbage” or that, “We exist.. in a way that violently negates beings [and objects] rather than takes care of them.” Rubbish Topographies and Beth Terry’s PlasticFreeLife are two social experiments which indicate that humans aren’t inherently wasteful, but they certainly don’t mean that individual consumption habits are the best way to deal with waste. Beth Terry’s example shows how nearly impossible it is to live in our capitalist, commodity-driven, global economy without plastic waste, and the few thousand tea bags collected for Rubbish Topographies wouldn’t fill a dump truck. It means that changes in waste patterns aren’t going to come from individuals, but from the larger system of production. The focus on the “wasteful nature” of humans misses the problem completely.

In the mean time, here is hope for your used tea bags. I am still collecting them for another project. If you want to give them a happy, trashless home, dry them and send them to:

Max Liboiron
218 74th St, Apt D2
Brooklyn, NY 11209

Works Cited:

Packard, V. (1960). The Waste Makers. New York,, D. McKay Co.

Strasser, S. (1999). Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York, Metropolitan Books.

Tea in the mail!

Tea mailed from California.

One thought on “Humans: Inherently wasteful, or good stewards? (And, why this question misses the point)

  1. Pingback: The Politics of Measurement: Per Capita Waste and Previous Sewage Contamination | Discard Studies

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