how we learned to stop worrying and love the trash

Dear Readers: This is part of a part of a draft for my book about trash, eating trash, and trash as a huge in-your-face way of thinking about this moment in time. Be kind to it, and if you steal any of it, I will come to your house and eat your big toes.

Once upon a time there was no trash. There was chicken food and soap-making fat (translate today: leftovers from dinner). There were patches for holes and remade dresses (old clothing and flour sacks). There were supplies to make lye (wood ash, which was then used to make soap). There were makeshift funnels and bowls (occasionally born of a large bottle, broken in half). Food barely even came in a package, and when it did, it was probably (a) useful—such as the purple-ish paper wrapped around soap that could be used to dye fabric—or (b) returnable to the store for some sort of credit or exchange—rags for example, being the main ingredient in paper making for a long, long time and the main currency of trade with the peddlers who sold pots and pans and little tin boxes.

Mending and patching clothing, melting down and re-pouring metal goods, inventing new uses for the broken, feeding chickens and making soap and candles of the old—these were the pegs that held daily life together. People were bound to the objects they used to clothe, feed, and shelter them; they had made them themselves, or knew the person who did. “Hey, Ma, what are we going to do with all these old flour sacks? Well, Pa, I believe I’ll wash out the lettering and make them into a new set of kitchen towels…”

Plastic did not exist. Neither, for that matter, did Kleenex, Kotex, Dixie cups, paper bags, straws, appliances, toilet paper, or indoor plumbing. Items were sold from piles of their kind at the neighborhood general store, metal goods were traded off of peddlers for rags, and nobody had ever heard of germs. A trash can? What the hell is a trash can? (The first time said receptacle was referred to in a magazine, the authors felt that most readers would not know what was meant and explained the term in detail.)

Life was a lot different then, some would say a lot rougher. Disposables, advertising told the world, freed you from work, provided an affordable servant to allow you as much leisure time as the rich who paid real people to do their work. With disposables you paid for resources, not for people, which turned out to be a lot cheaper (in the short term).

“Work is drudgery!” advertisements chanted from the pages of magazines and (much much later) the speakers of radios. “Disposables are freedom!” Hark, heralds of the leisure class! May my feet remain up, my body pleasantly perfumed, and my wardrobe fashionable and untattered! May the leftovers in my Frigidaire go moldy so that I may purchase new groceries tomorrow! In your name we pay…

It started with mass production. Products became easier to obtain, cheaper. Ma and Pa started ordering from the Sears catalog instead of waiting for the peddler to come by (“You know, I always thought there was something queer about that man anyway.”) Mass production took the grunt out of grunt work. Who wanted to sit around all day sewing a shirt? Do you have any idea how long it takes to make one shirt by hand? Why not just order one from Sears and put your feet up for a change? Relax! You deserve it.

Then somebody went and discovered germs. Evil, malicious germs! Those “elfs and gnomes of communicable disease” [1}! No longer was it safe to drink from the community cup on the train or at the town well! No longer was it safe to use a cloth handkerchief! There were Charlies everywhere! The plague, consumption, syphilis, the clap, just waiting to slide down your throat from the cusp of a re-usable paper straw!

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will admit to you that germs do in fact exist, and they are in fact capable of spreading disease. But were these “germs” as bad as the media claimed? Did industry consider the implications of using this fear to sell disposable products? Do disposables really make our lives better, more free? Or do they fill our habitat with items we’ve learned to understand as useless and that will not become soil (or anything even remotely life giving) in our lifetimes?

A good product for business is a product that can only be used once. Today we hear rumors of products designed to fail after a certain period of time, to keep consumers at the troughs and companies out of the red. With disposables you don’t have to bother covering up the fact that your product has a pre-ordained “death date.” Advertising was the snake in everybody’s garden: “This product will increase your social status, this product will provide more leisure time and less work, this product will save your soul and dare your spirit to move. Buy this product, or despair.”

People bought them—oh how they bought them!—because there was a tangible easing of the pains of life through them. No more cloth menstrual pads and no more cloth hankies meant one less load of laundry. Paper plates and cups meant less time behind the sink. Sweat shop produced T-shirts mean that you don’t have to sit around all day losing your eye sight over teeny tiny stitches. Buy a destroyed resource to do it for you! Buy a “third-world-country” inhabitant to do it for you! The slavery of the old south was abolished and replaced with a new kind of slave, the ghost slave [2].

Now we have plastics and polymers and traffic jams and helicopters. Now we have central heating and plumbing and three-ply toilet paper. We have synthetic fibers and H&M and DVDs and mp3s. We have plastic wrap and garbage bags (made to be thrown away), vegan shoes and laptop computers. Now we have environmentalists and corporations and international trade. Is life better? Of course it’s fucking better! I don’t have to grow any of my own food, sew any of my own clothes, light a wood stove, or look at or even acknowledge the existence of my own piss and shit. All those unpleasantries, gone! All of those unpleasant body odors, deodorized! Yes, farm work is hard, so is sewing and patching your entire family’s clothes, slaughtering a chicken, dealing with the compost toilet, and milking the cows. But whether or not this is really better or worse than the situation we find ourselves in today depends on your perspective, on your priorities.

If your top priority is doing as little physical labor as possible, this is all fantastic, and you can return to your desk now. If your top priority is selling a lot of disposable cups, this is your pockets stuffed with money as you skip happily down the street whistling do-da. If your top priority is being “fashionable” then the marketers have you right where they want you. And if your top priority is living in a healthy habitat that sustains life, where your body is not full of pesticides and carcinogens and dioxin, a place where your having been born makes the world a better, healthier, more diverse place, then you’re going to hell on a plastic island of trash.

[1] Waste and Want by Susan Strasser, page 178. This tidbit is a quote she has taken from a druggists’ trade journal from the 1920s.
[2] Thanks to Derrick Jensen who, as far as I know, coined this term. It refers to the trees and rocks and fossil fuels that are made to do your work for you. Update: Since posting this I have learned that Derrick Jensen did not coin this term and that he learned it from someone named William Catton, Jr.

0 Comments on “how we learned to stop worrying and love the trash

  1. Have you read Guns Germs and Steel? I feel like that would help as well. And I found some resources on how we started using plastics- its really interesting actually- I’ll send them along when I get time.

  2. Tara: Thanks! Awesome that you emailed it on. Double thanks.

    ts: Once upon a time I had a copy of that book, but I never got around to reading it, and I didn’t bring it with me to Germany. Perhaps you will meet it on the shelves of my former room when you are at my mom’s this weekend. (God, lucky you, tell my remaining books that I say hello!) Excited to hear about what you dug up about plastics, though still less than excited that it exists at all. Oje.

  3. I’d recommend you to watch ‘Plastic Planet’ if you happen to stumble upon it at some point!
    They showed it in one of the lecture halls during the suatting here. It frightened me, but I suppose that’s a good thing in some ways.

  4. Really love your article! It is very well written. I work at GladRags (which sells cloth pads and menstrual cups) and I loved that you mentioned that until recently no one used disposable menstrual products. It can be hard to believe for a lot of women! But there are some awesome alternatives out there. I love my menstrual cup.

  5. Gesa: I’ll have to see if I can dig that one up somewhere. We have a pretty sweet video rental place here, maybe they can get it for me. The more information I get about plastics, then more frightened I get. But maybe frightened is the wrong word. The right words might be more like angry and sad and frustrated that anybody has to think about plastic at all.

    Alex: Thanks! I am a big fan of the cloth pad. My cousin makes really bad ass ones that got me started on them in the first place. (Which, people of Europe, you can purchase from me anywhere where I’ve set up my distro or through the mail if you write.) The name GladRags is kind of fantastic and hilarious. Here here!

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