Self-portrait as Revealed by Trash: 365 days of photographing everything I threw out Variation 1, 2006
For one year, every time I threw something away, I photographed it. At first, this act seemed simple enough; I was just documenting how much stuff I sent off to the garbage heap. I had thought of myself as fairly environmentally responsible – after all, I’m always thinking about these things, right? I don’t buy a lot of stuff, so I probably don’t throw away much either. But that act of taking a picture of every single item that I threw out became something else that I can’t quite put my finger on. It became more than a chore; it became part of my life (albeit, a bit awkward on first dates).
By focusing on all of these images, I came to attach new meaning to my discards. My trash became memorialized, no longer merely throw-aways to be forgotten forever, but now somehow useful. This collection of images intimately displays what I do, what I consume. It reveals me.
Even someone so eco conscious still sends so much to the landfill. Those daily coffee cups add up. (Recycling it doesn’t let us off the hook either: it takes energy to produce, transport and re-create.) New England’s landfills are nearly full. What happens next? What are the consequences of this American throwaway culture where, if it’s out of site, it’s out of mind? I don’t think that we get away with it: we eat, drink and breathe these plastic cups long after the dump truck makes its weekly run.
I thought I’d be relieved to finish this project after 365 days and over 5,000 photos, but I was not. As I tried to break this photographic ritual over the following weeks, throwing stuff away seemed like such a waste.
- 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.
- What did you find revealing about examining your year’s trash?
It’s startling to discover what I consumed and the sheer amount of stuff that I threw away over the year. I was generally broke, so I didn’t buy all that much and I didn’t even participate in any of the traditional consumer holidays like Christmas. All of this stuff was average day-to-day consumption – mostly food packaging.
- 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. As I came to understand the flow of my plastic trash, 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?
It’s really hard to imagine the big picture, isn’t it? To get my mind around that, I’m breaking the big picture down into manageable components, so bear with me as I work this out. The simple changes I just made reduced (5) bottles from my daily 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 (1) 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 (5), 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. (Haven’t scientists made enough connections between plastics and its production to the environmental toxins that give frogs extra limbs and us cancer?) 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.