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Davis, California

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Column: Treasure trove of trash

One of my top three favorite holidays took place last Friday: happy belated Earth Day! (Although, let’s get real. Every day should be Earth Day.) Ideally, you celebrated by having a dance party with solar-generated light and buying only locally-grown, organic food that needs no packaging.

I celebrated by going to the English department’s screening of Waste Land, an Oscar-nominated documentary that came out in 2010. The film follows Vik Muniz, an avant-garde artist known for using unusual objects (go Google his Double Mona Lisa after Warhol, which uses peanut butter and jelly to recreate a Warhol screen print). Feeling a little too snug in his rich and famous New York City lifestyle, Muniz decides to return to his home country of Brazil to take on his next artistic endeavor.

Muniz travels to the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to document the people of Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill. The catadores, workers who pick recyclable materials out of the mountains of garbage in order to make money, instantly capture his attention. The film quickly points out that people who work with garbage are still people. They are full of life and emit an unexpected vibrancy.

For the next two years, Muniz and a few select catadores work to create giant trash portraits of these colorful people. Using materials collected from the landfill like old film, dirt, flip flops, bottle caps, tires and other seemingly worthless items, the first installment of Pictures of Garbage sells at auction in London for over $50,000. The film is a touching story of how we can use art for social change.

Another great benefit of Waste Land is that it makes the audience think about one question throughout the film: how do we deal with living in a world full of garbage? As one of the catadores brings up in her interview, it’s easy for us to sit on our couch, consume as much as we want and then throw our trash into the street, where we will probably never see it again. We drink our soda, throw away the can and think nothing else of it. It’s out of sight, out of mind.

Reflecting on how much trash we produce in just a day can be a bit depressing. Our food comes in packaging. We read this newspaper and toss it at the end of the day. Those jeans you split a hole in from your crazy dance moves are worthless and in the trash. How much does our culture waste in just one day?

Garbage is an unavoidable consequence of our 21st century consumerism. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2009, the average American produced 4.3 pounds of waste per day. Where does that waste go? Only 33.8 percent of American waste is recovered and recycled or composted; the rest is either burned or put in a landfill.

With the recent push towards green advertising in the past few years, we have probably all heard about the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. We all probably own at least one reusable bag. We all see the three bins around campus: compost, recycle, landfill.

Yet, just because we see these things around us, do we ever stop and think about them? When was the last time you hesitated before throwing away that trash into the landfill bin or asking for a plastic bag at Safeway?

While waste production is something we can’t completely stop from happening, it is something we can control. Reduce your consumption. Opt for a banana (complete with biodegradable packaging) instead of that candy bar covered in aluminum foil. Refuse to purchase the memory card that comes in the weird plastic that’s impossible to open and impossible to recycle.

Upcycling (giving value to waste by repurposing it) is another way to cut down on garbage. In the film, a young boy ties a string to a plastic shopping bag and uses it as a kite. Last week, I read an article about the “Binary Chair,” which is a chair made completely from computer waste like motherboards and Ethernet cables. We can give worthless trash a purpose by reusing our waste.

If you can’t reduce and you can’t reuse, then recycle. Even recycling just one piece of old notebook paper can help. As Valter, a wise, old catador of Jardim Gramacho, said in his interview, “People sometimes say ‘But one single can?’ One single can is of great importance. Because 99 is not 100, and that single one will make the difference.”

CORRIE JACOBS wants to know what you’re gonna do with all that junk inside your trunk. You better be upcycling it into something cool. (And if it’s art, you better submit it to Nameless Magazine!) Share your ideas at cljacobs@ucdavis.edu.

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