On Plastic, Ruins and Robots

By "Tern" Jessica Leber--More than what we eat, we are what we toss away. Anthropologists, archeologists, and so-called “garbologists" who wade through society’s dumpsters and landfills have long known in garbage veritas. Could our truth in trash be all that’s left some day? This is the apoplectic vision of Pixar’s inspired animated release, Wall-E. Not a word is spoken in the movie’s first 20-odd minutes, as Earth's lone surviving trash-compactor robot Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) diligently organizes the mess that humanity left behind. Seven hundred years earlier, humans had abandoned their toxic planet for outer space as carelessly as a rock star flees his trashed hotel room.

Back on Earth, what at first looks like a city of skyscrapers turns out to be neatly piled garbage cubes, compliments of Wall-E, and the dusty sky darkens as wind storms sweep the lifeless landscape. Wall-E’s lonely world consists of his constant companion (an indestructible cockroach), his most treasured possession (a VHS of the 1969 movie musical, Hello, Dolly!), and a personal trove of artifacts that he gathers while rubbish crunching. This collection includes a Rubik’s cube, a wall-mounted singing fish, a pile of cigarette lighters, strings of Christmas lights and a battered lunch cooler. 

It seems that our modern society is preserved in plastic, at least according to Disney. I returned home from the movie with the container of the juice I had been drinking still in hand. Not once in the theater or along the 2 mile walk home did I notice a recycling bin. Now, I like to recycle as much as possible. But, to be honest, I probably would’ve just given up and tossed it, had I not just happened to watch this movie. With Americans throwing away an average of 4.6 pounds per day, we’re generating our body weight in trash every one or two months. Since recycling only removes about a third of this waste, that’s a whole lot of waste we’re piling up.  

Wall-E is a particularly graphic illustration that our garbage, though out of our sight, might really be around much longer than we realize. Archeologists have learned a lot about past civilizations from their dumps, which include broken glass shards, pottery, and all sorts of discarded items (in ancient Greece, the city of Athens built the Western world’s first municipal dump site in 500 B.C., for example).  

It’s logical, then, that future generations, perhaps even future civilizations, will have much to learn from our heaping landfills. Today’s modern Greece, for example, is struggling under the weight of its refuse and lack of recycling. Early last year Athens’ 520-foot high landfill filled to capacity, proliferating a crisis of illegal dumping and litter. If Greece, a moderately well off country is any indication, our society's garbage ruins will be substantial.   

The “Garbage Project,” run from 1973-2005 by the University of Arizona’s William Rathje, provided a few of the more famous examples of what we can learn from our trash. His team found that though people will tell you they don’t waste food, usually more than 15% ends up as refuse. During a beef shortage in 1973, people surprisingly wasted record-high levels of meat. And though we assume that paper and food waste degrades in landfills, the project’s recovery of 2,425 legible newspapers, buried anywhere from years to decades prior, indicates otherwise.

All of this had me thinking about what my garbage said about me. Right now, there’s an empty container of hummus, a rotten cucumber, a plastic dry-cleaning wrap, and some cotton swabs in my trash bin. I wonder how much food I really waste? And that plastic hummus container will probably be shipped to some landfill in Pennsylvania Ohio (where a lot of New York’s garbage goes). What do you imagine will be left of your personal trash hundreds of years from now (to continue Alexa's questioning theme)?  Go take a look in your bin and find out!

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