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Opinion And Letters To The EditorPolice LogEmail UsSend a Letter to the EditorSubscribeToday's date: Wednesday, April 18, 2007   
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You Can Make a Difference


Wednesday, April 4, 2007 11:44 AM PDT

Writer and friend Patricia St. John told me about a show at Gallery Route One in Point Reyes that may well be one of the most important exhibits of the decade.

I hesitate to provide the title of the work so early in this column. I don't want to turn off any potential viewers before you've had a chance to appreciate the magnitude of the project.

Tim Gaudreau, an eco-artist living in New Hampshire, has created a powerful exhibit made up of 5,000 images - revealing images of his personal life - through photographs of the trash he produced each day for one year.

Now, before we think, “I don't want to look at trash,” perhaps we might consider that it could be important to see what a single person adds to the landfill each year.

Our methods of trash collection or, rather, waste disposal, make the issue of “our trash” appear minimal. “Out of sight - out of mind.” Only on those rare trips to the dump, where we stand within the pungent, eerie wasteland of garbage, are we reminded that the “trash” does, in fact, end up somewhere. But even at the dump, the items that we may have discarded are nowhere to be found. All we see is other people's trash. Which is why going to see Gaudreau's exhibit is so sobering. How beneficial it would be to have a trip to the exhibit scheduled by classroom field trip planners, civic leaders, food packagers and each and every voting consumer.

“Self Portrait as Revealed by Trash: 365 days of photographing everything I threw out,” is destined to be a major work - a reflection of life in our time.

Gaudreau said the idea for the project developed after he planned and prepared a dinner for two at his home.

“Afterward we were cleaning up and had all the various plastic bags that held the vegetables, the wine, all this leftover trash,” he said. “I had no idea the amount of trash that one generated in the course of a day or just one meal - that two people could produce so much leftover garbage.”

Gaudreau said his work has always been laced with a theme of nature and the environment but “the work was much more subtle ... it didn't ask for any action,” he said. But with the reality of global warming, the artist says we are at a crisis point, “the time for subtlety is past.”

“Self Portrait” FAQs

Did you photograph everything you threw out?

Yes. Well, and no. There were a small number of instances when I didn't have my camera in hand. In some of those cases, I made notes on what should have been documented. This naturally led to the act of photographing the notes as they, too, became trash. I did not document organic matter. All images that show food were actually taken to show the disposed packaging. I figure, food is natural and its decomposition is generally not a negative contribution to the ecosystem.

Did you recycle?

Yes. Everything that should have been recycled was. However, I still consider those items to be a significant contribution to the waste stream. Virgin plastic water bottles take more raw material and energy to produce, energy to transport and re-manufacture than the reusable drinking glass found in my cupboard. Moreover, for waste haulers, recycling is both a commodity and a liability; they sometimes dispose of it in a non-environmentally positive manner if they can make more money. Municipalities must recognize the importance of proper recycling and follow it up with clear support and regulation. If not, we will drink these water bottles for years to come.

Did this project change your behavior?

Yes! At the beginning of this project, on an average day, I would consume: (1) cup of iced coffee, (2) bottles of water, (1) bottle of iced tea and (1) bottle of a sports drink. After photographing so many plastic bottles, there came a point when I couldn't bear to admit throwing out another one. I started by cutting back everywhere I could. I stopped using plastic and foil wrap in my kitchen; I started mixing my own iced tea from concentrate; Drinking water came from gallon jugs rather than pint bottles, then ultimately just tap water.

Then I switched my morning coffee to a rather beautiful reusable ceramic mug and to mixing my own sports drink from powder.

What does my personal effect on the ecosystem mean?

That's really hard to imagine in the big picture, isn't it? To get my mind around it, I'm breaking it down into manageable components, so bear with me as I work this out. The simple changes I just made reduced (5) bottles from my personal waste stream. That's (35) in a week. Assume my habits would remain constant and I live to a fair life span of 80 years: By reducing one plastic bottle daily, that's 365 in a year. In my remaining 43 years, that's 15,695 bottles. By reducing my daily use by five, that's 78,475 bottles that never get manufactured, consumed and then thrown out.

What does that mean?

First, less decomposing plastic leachate dripping into our groundwater. Plus, reducing plastic consumption reduces our dependence on oil for its manufacture and our towns pay less in tipping fees (less fees=less taxes). And, funny thing, my coffee shop charges me less when I'm using my own cup.

Betty Woolfolk, Executive Director of Route One Gallery, says the response has been great. “People are very impressed. It hits home to everyone - how they should be more mindful of what they dispose of.” Woolfolk said a class of fourth graders put their own touch on the exhibit.

“They came down and added a small piece of paper that they had written something on to his installation,” she said. “The schools are really great. They discuss the exhibit. It's a great learning experience for the students.”

The exhibit runs through April 29 and is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays. Route One Gallery, 11101 Highway One, Point Reyes.

See it there - before it goes to the Smithsonian.

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