In Praise Of Garbage

I was walking along Elgin Street in Ottawa when I saw a woman of about forty leave an empty beer-box on the roadside. She was on a bicycle and had decided for the ease of it to transport her beer in a plastic shopping bag instead. And so she peddled away with her groceries and beer in hand, the handlebar in the other.

In certain areas I have seen a large amount of garbage lying around. In my own neighbourhood there is scads of the stuff, owing to my nearness to a Dépanneur and several neighbourhood restaurants. Broken beer bottles, Slush Puppy cups, McDonald’s packaging, cigarette boxes, half consumed St Hubert meals, and so forth. When the snow melts in Spring, there appears an underworld of it rotting at the stems of hedges and even in the branches of trees. In every crevice, in rivers and puddles, along the embankments of underpasses — garbage. In a word, everywhere.

Littering has always represented to me a category of social contempt, almost misanthropic in character. It involves disdain for the idea of people living together responsibly in a more-or-less constructive, humane manner. At the very least a person demonstrates breathtaking indifference to the idea of the Public by littering.

Even when refuse is “properly” disposed, which means only that one observes the taboo of social contamination, there remains the matter of garbage. What is there to say about garbage and its meaning? The first and I think most basic observation is that our garbage is the most honest and candid witness to our true character that we are able to consult. I have read somewhere that New York City has risen as much as thirty feet since its founding, on account of its sitting upon its garbage. When all else is evaporated of our time on Earth, it is this record alone which will speak to future generations. Note that it is not our poems, novels, heartfelt passions, or dreams by which we will be regarded and understood. It will be our discarded baubles and trinkets, in short our midden, which will be called into this service. And so be it, as human beings tend to lie about themselves when they take deliberately to formal expressions of purpose, whereas archaeologists of the future will have reason to be confident that the daily stream of cheap consumables on which we have spent our disposable income, and which we have consumed behind the veil of privacy, fairly represents us.

Another observation in recommendation of garbage is that it is the thing we most excel in producing. It speaks rather well of a civilization that considerable effort, design, creative thought, and material resources are put into things which following purchase are immediately thrown away. I am speaking of packaging, and in the case of many consumer goods it is the packaging which constitutes the most interesting and attractive part of the product. Plastic wrappers, Styrofoam containers, paper packages, and so forth represent the great advancement of our age, these things having appeared in the world at most one hundred years ago. (Styrofoam for example will have existed seventy years in 2011.) That a certain portion of the economy is dedicated to the deliberate production of mere waste suggests the great wealth and power that today obtains in North America.

This epochal character of garbage was impressed upon me some time ago when I visited Monticello, noting as I did that there were no wastebaskets. And now, everything produced comes in a package which is garbage, as is of course the product proper — a fact made more remarkable by the consideration that consumer goods are both manufactured and bought in full knowledge they will be thrown out, sooner rather than later. Economists know that garbage suggests some rather interesting facts about modern economic arrangements, yet they ignore garbage as a category of study, either by lumping it in with everything else produced or by labeling it an “externality.”

Even in our own time, garbage is a corrective to false notions about current social and economic arrangements. For instance, the idea that we live in a digital, electronic age. Even a cursory investigation of garbage shows beyond question that we are firmly in the age of paper. A good deal of electronic devices are thrown out, and this class of garbage is likely to grow in volume, but it is the paper office waste, the newsprint, the books, and the receipts which make up the bulk of landfill. Despite this, we will go on hearing empty chatter concerning our living in an electronic age, in which digital media such as downloaded music and electronic books will soon render extinct the world of objects.

No — as I have stated, far from being worthless, our garbage will be, perhaps alone, a faithful and enduring witness of our world. We may think we have taken a leap forward. We may claim in public our allegiance to the most noble and lofty of sentiments. But whatever we believe or think we know, there will remain our privately thrown-away Romance novels and Hollywood blockbuster DVDs and sundry guilty pleasures to expose us. This is a good thing.

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