When I was a freshman at Rhode Island School of Design, I took a foundations 3 dimensional design course with a teacher named Ken Horii. I often recall a lecture he gave during which he projected slides from his trip to the Kailasanatha rock-cut temple at Ellora in India. The temple was carved into the wall of a basalt cliff and took an estimated 40 years to complete. One of the slides showed a section of a painted ceiling. Ken explained that the fine lines in the image were applied with a single hair. I remember that when he returned from the trip he was unable to make art for more than a year. I recently emailed Ken to ask him to refresh my memory on some of the details of his experience. In his reply he explained that he was hoping to impart to his students the importance of finding necessity in our own production. The work of those who carved each stone and painted each line was in service to something greater than themselves. He wrote that what gave him pause in his work was, “the need to seek and find that necessity for myself—a deeper and undeniable way forward.”
I think of Ken’s lecture whenever I am faced with something overwhelming that forces me to question my practices and requires me to take pause in my own life. This last semester of graduate school at Parsons was an instance of this. I was able to design my curriculum around the subject of waste and I discovered very quickly that I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I took a class about e-waste that examined the manufacturing, usage, and disposal of electronics, specifically through the lens of the smartphone. We made a digital and physical project called TECHTRASH that aimed to demystify some of the consequences of device use. In an anthropology course I took at NYU called Garbage in Gotham, I learned about the history of waste management in NYC. I worked on a composting project and campaign at an urban farm in Brooklyn with Project Eats and Hello Compost. In a more experimental project, I co-designed an exhibit called Landfull for a speculative design class. This kind of discourse is exactly what I was searching for once I had settled into a No Trash Project routine in Providence and I looked around wondering if it was possible for me to effect change beyond my own personal consumption and discard habits. I had started to become aware of the limitations of focusing solely on problem solving municipal waste and was eager to have conversations about systems upstream of consumption. The question, “Why do we focus so much money, so many resources and campaigning on municipal waste management and individual responsibility, when household trash only makes up for 3% of the nations total waste output?” rang in my ears. I felt the need to reconsider whether or not I wanted to continue to generate what I feared may ultimately be a misdirected energy. I wondered if I had been naïve to promote my No Trash Project through the blog when folks in the field of Discard Studies seem to have much bigger fish to fry.
After many months, some wonderful experiences, and a lot of reflection, I’ve come to some conclusions that I feel the need to share. First, and perhaps most importantly in the context of everything I’ve written on this platform to date, while the planet won’t notice whether or not I make trash or if I leave the lights on when I leave a room, I remain committed to the effort to circumvent garbage and packaging in my consumption of goods. I continue to take care in my decisions (based in considerations of source, material, manufacturing, energy, quality and durability) about the things I acquire and the things I choose to purge. I will continue to work to limit my energy and resource-consumption. Though I’ve tried to express this in previous posts, I can say more distinctly now that these decisions are not based in some delusion that I alone can slow the melting ice, but rather in something more personal and intuitive. It’s in the feeling that I have when I lift an item towards a trashcan about the strangeness of its grave beyond the receptacle and the rituals we’ve constructed to deliver it there. Any acknowledgement of the resources and labor required to produce that item, and of the fuel required to move the materials around is obliterated in that gesture. The objection to it stirs in my chest and in my stomach. If I had to assign one word to the feeling it would be, “Nope.” It’s important to note is that while that 3% statistic is something I grapple with in terms of trying to decide where to focus my attention, having stood in the open face of Rhode Island’s central landfill taking in the volume of a single day’s worth of garbage in the smallest state in the country, there is no part of me that imagines that 3% to be too insignificant for concern.
Additionally, the upward trend in my quality of life since starting this project obliges me to continue forward with it and to sustain my effort to become more organized in my housekeeping, work, school, and personal care routines. In doing so I might free up more time to cultivate relationships and get after more adventures. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not an organized thinker by nature, so I have to work hard to maintain order and efficiency. I’ve come to rely on the No Trash systems I’ve installed to reduce chaos and clutter. So in short, as far as my personal dedication to this project goes, there’s still no end in sight.
Another important conclusion I’ve reached is that while my private individual actions may not lead to anything outside of personal satisfaction, sharing my thoughts, works, and practices on this blog may generate meanings greater than my own struggles and successes. I’ve just returned home to New York City from a trip abroad. I was awarded the opportunity to attend a design workshop in Venice called Recycling City 3. Once the workshop ended I traveled around to meet some friends I had made through dialogues sparked over my project. I am so grateful to have had the chance to spend time with such amazing thinkers and doers. Letters from old professors, conversations with my brilliant classmates, and shining new friends have inspired me to keep posting. The tone of future posts will likely range from theoretical to practical, and continue to include musings around micro and macro issues in waste.