By: Katherine Kivimaki
Imagine you are walking through a building at lunchtime, your food in one hand and beverage in another. You’ve just unwrapped your straw, the wrapper now perilously balanced between your middle and ring finger for lack of a third hand. You walk outside and come across two trash cans: the left one is almost empty and has a lid you would need to push to drop in your wrapper. The right one is almost full but is an open pit over which you can simply open your fingers and the wrapper will fall. Which trash can do you choose?
As a microcosm of everyone’s lives, I was interested in our relationship with trash, finding inspiration in William & Mary and its students to observe it. I conducted an ethnographic study on Sadler Terrace, watching as students interacted with trash as they went about their normal routines at a weekday lunchtime. Sadler is one of the hearts of the William & Mary campus, attracting a large number of students in consistent droves as classes cycle throughout the day. Inside lies one of the most popular dining halls on campus, and the unusually warm weather often entices students to eat outside. Before the fall semester began, the school moved its popular coffee shop, Aromas, inside Sadler. The terrace, therefore, attracts people looking for lunch and for coffee, each with their respective disposable byproducts. It was here that I had the best chance of seeing how students interact with trash as part of their normal days.
Trash as Uniquely Human
The concept of trash is inherently linked to that of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s ecosystems. Though most focus on geological impacts, it has been partially characterized by attempts to intertwine anthropological ideas that paint a more inclusive picture of human influence on the environment, rejecting the Eurocentric vision that shifts blame of environmental damage towards those who do not deserve it. Some tie the Anthropocene’s beginning to colonization; others, to capitalism, rejecting biased and simplistic views of the Anthropocene.
However, an emerging idea connects the Anthropocene to the existence of trash. Armiero’s Wastocene includes but is not limited to recognizing the consequences of capitalism, emphasizing the prevalence of wasting relationships and toxicity. The concept framed as the Anthropocene prevents simplistic perspectives of the environment by delivering the “we” message in addition to imposing the violence and wastefulness by humans on the environment.
“The Wasteocene thus offers a framework for a critical analysis of toxicity as the capitalistic othering of people and places” (Armiero, pg. 426).
In essence, the existence of the Anthropocene is constituted by waste. The Wastocene reinforces the general belief that whatever may comprise the Anthropocene is bad, having negative effects on the environment; colonialism, capitalism, and waste fall under this connotation. Waste as a fundamental term becomes “bad,” defining the concept in a moral sense. However, waste is a uniquely human phenomenon – the world before mankind existed as a closed system. For example, a dead tree decomposes and releases nutrients back into the soil, fueling new life in a continuous loop. Waste, as humans have created it, does not return benefits to the environment, instead existing as a growing mass of toxins that pose health risks to humans and the surrounding environment.
In a capitalist society, waste is unavoidable. Thus emerges capitalist environmentalism, in which recycling and trash disposal become a moral duty linked to the health of our planet. The morality of waste is not defined by its existence but the way in which we dispose of it: trash is morally acceptable, but pollution is not.
“The corporate focus on litter, amplified by the media, distorts our view of all environmental issues… It’s not that plastic is unimportant. The problem is that it’s almost the only story we know” (Monbiot, 2021).
Choices Based on Convenience
My observations on Sadler rendered curious conclusions. The terrace, being popular for midday meals and hanging out, is surrounded by trash cans. However, there are two different types of trash cans in the area. One is covered by a small dome, with a swinging opening into which students can push their trash. The other is lidless, with merely an open hole into which students can dispose of their trash. In the immediate vicinity of my observations were three lidded trash cans and two lidless trash cans. One of each type was directly in front of the door to Sadler, with a lidded trash can, lidless trash can, and the final lidded trash dispersed respectively in the path away from the doors.
Despite there being fewer of them, the lidless trash cans were being used much more frequently than their lidded counterparts, as people dumped remnants of their to-go lunches, coffee cups, stirrers, and straw wrappers. Throughout my observations, I found that the lidless trash cans were used twice as much as the lidded ones, even though there were more lidded trash cans than lidless trash cans. Furthermore, the lidless trash can was markedly fuller than the lidded trash can, presenting the question of whether people choose how they throw away their trash based on how easy it is for them to do it.
Moral Grayness of Waste Disposal: When Convenience Turns Trash into Pollution
During my observations, no one blatantly littered. However, people were so consistently choosing to fill the lidless trash can out of convenience that it ran the risk of overflowing. If someone chooses to dispose of trash in an easily accessible but full trash can to the point that trash spills onto the ground, is it considered trash or pollution? They made some effort to dispose of waste where it belongs, and yet their decision caused waste to fall out of trash cans, polluting the environment.
This discussion has thus far defined waste as a dichotomy, separating the concept into trash and pollution. However, a number of anthropologists have rejected this approach; recently, Govindrajan blurs the line between “wild” and “domestic” in her discussion of wild boars in a small village in India. Value dualisms carve out the world as binary, dividing things into two opposing categories and then claiming that one side of any given pair is better than the other.
“There was little room in this [dualistic] understanding of wilderness for precarious histories of wilding such as that experienced by the runaway sow. But the story of the runaway pig reminds us that there is no pure nature that is not always and already mediated by history and politics” (Govindrajan, pg. 129).
Applying dualisms to waste, trash becomes the “better” side of the pair to pollution, even though they are essentially the same thing: the distinction only exists based on where this waste ends up. Trash and pollution may not be a perfect dichotomy, with moral gray areas existing in between. What is the morality of someone who puts trash in an overflowing trash can, and how accountable should they be held for convenient decisions that are morally acceptable but yield morally unacceptable consequences? A person’s actions and consequences may not be identical, and so classifying all actions into one category or another may ignore important nuances of human relationships with trash.
Convenience: Virtue or Vice?
By fostering lazy habits and producing negative consequences, could convenience be a bad thing? Not necessarily. For instance, stairs prevent people with mobility limitations from accessing buildings. However, ramps were built for these people to improve accessibility. Their inclusion helps those with mobility limitations but also helps others. Ramps aid otherwise fully mobile people with trolleys, suitcases, and other temporary limitations. Lidless trash cans are relatively analogous to ramps in that they make throwing away waste easier than with lidded trash cans. Additionally, consider that not all of Sadler’s trash cans were “convenient”: what if all the trash cans were lidless? There may be a greater chance that the trash would be more evenly distributed in such a scenario, lowering the likelihood of indirect pollution from spillovers. Perhaps it is not the advent of convenience, but that of partial convenience that has aided in driving this issue.
How Can Convenience Foster Conservation?
This post has considered the dichotomies of trash and pollution in the context of William & Mary’s students and campus. A small snippet into a small part of life cannot fully explain human relations with the environment, but it provides a glimpse into what can be offered. No observation is necessary to understand the massive amounts of waste generated by humans. Americans are each on track to generate 102 tons of trash throughout their lives. The real question is this: how is this waste intertwined with our morality towards conservation? How much of our waste is trash as opposed to pollution – how much of what we believe is trash ends up as pollution? Further anthropological research may better discern what makes an individual more or less likely to throw waste away in a given type of trash can, and the extent to which convenience drives our lives. Doing so could reduce the amount of pollution in favor of trash and paint a fuller picture of how our relationship with trash is defined.
Armiero, M. (2021). The Case for the Wasteocene. Environmental History, 26(3), 425–430. https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emab014.003.
Davis, H., & Todd, Z. (2017). On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 16(4), 761–780.
Govindrajan, R. (2018). Pig Gone Wild: Colonialism, Conservation, and the Otherwild. In Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas. University of Chicago Press. https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226560045.003.0005.
Humes, E. (2012). Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. Penguin Group, NYC.
Madden, J. D. (2013). The Case Against Dualism: The Problem of Mind-Body Interaction. In Mind, Matter, and Nature (pp. 58–87). Catholic University of America Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt32b42m.6.
Monbiot, G. (2021, October 30). Capitalism Is Killing the Planet – It’s Time to Stop Buying into Our Own Destruction. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/30/capitalism-is-killing-the-planet-its-time-to-stop-buying-into-our-own-destruction.
Riebeling, Z. (2022). Waste and Historicity in the Anthropocene. Rethinking History, 26(3), 319–339. https://doi.org/10.1080/13642529.2022.2103620.
W&M Alumni Association. (n.d.). Sadler Terrace [Photograph]. William & Mary. https://wmalumni.com/gifts-gear/images/backgrounds/sadler-terrace.jpg.