A Year's Worth by J. Makary

Turns out I'm terrible at blogging. But I did keep up with my trash project. 

A year's worth of trash (5 voluminous pounds).

A year's worth of trash (5 voluminous pounds).

May brought a very busy production schedule and a broken refrigerator, which increased my reliance on pre-packaged foods and craft-services snacks and a general slackness in my attitude. So my final month of trash shows the slippery slope I slid down from June 2016 (when I had, what, a CD and some tea bags?) to May 2017. I discovered that is very hard in our culture to resist all the tasty things that come in non-recyclable packaging, and equally hard not to seem like an environment scold when people ask why I'm shoving used restaurant straws in my purse. Anyway, I plan to keep up with my trash collecting and am heartened by how easy it was to make some basic changes to my consumer habits, like using cloth napkins, cooking more often, and buying products in recyclable packaging (a detailed list is in my first project post, below). Having this trash around is a good reminder of the space my preferences and desires take up on the planet.

May 2017: Lots of coffees, Amy's Kitchen frozen dinners, and stuff ordered from Amazon in bubble mailers.

May 2017: Lots of coffees, Amy's Kitchen frozen dinners, and stuff ordered from Amazon in bubble mailers.

Trash in July (Backslide) by J. Makary

My trash for July 2016.

My trash for July 2016.

So, this is typical: I generated what looks to be double the amount of trash from June to July, which is classic behavior for me—start strong and then fall off a bit. :) I’m still learning about what can be recycled and why recycling isn’t a panacea for our environmental problems. (I’m reading Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home for some tips.)

At RAIR Philly, where I shot my new video project last winter, the evidence of our unsustainable way of life piles up. The mountains of trash at the plant are a site of hope, because a high percentage of all materials brought here are recycled, but also dismay. There’s an efficiency and pragmatism to the work at the plant, and massive amounts of materials are moved through the recycling process each day. Despite this, the volume of discarded materials brought me anxiety and something that felt like an emotional bruise, a tender spot pressed into by sadness and complicity. It put me in a frame of mind to explore difficulty, struggle, and lack of control.

Dust is a renegade material that the plant is at pains to keep down during working hours. Outside of business hours it was available, like any other material onsite, for creative use. We devised methods for creating engulfing clouds of dust in which to situate movement-based improvisations based on news images taken during protests, dust storms, and catastrophic events, such as 9/11. The visual power of dust and light brings the movement improvisations into beautiful, theatrical territory. As the clouds rise up, the ugliness and chaos of the physical site fall away. But mixed with this beauty is a threat—the clouds are toxic, obscuring. And all part of the same tableau of how we live now, the “how” that the Dark Mountain Project admonishes us to wake up and change.

I learned about the Dark Mountain Project in 2014. Started by a group of disillusioned environmental activists, the Dark Mountain Project is an artistic and literary movement addressing the flawed subjectivity of man’s relationship to the Earth. Our cultural stories have put man at the center, instead of in equal relationship to the rest of the natural world. With the degradation of the natural environment, this way of living—our way of living—is passing into history. Dark Mountain holds that our way of life is not sustainable and civilization is headed for collapse; something will keep going, but it won’t include the human race.

Dancer and poet Laura Neuman performing in my RAIR project.

We are being called to engineer and embrace a radical shift: to accept that there are certain things that cannot be fixed, admit that we are to blame, and fall into a new, more humble role. The Dark Mountain Project champions a protagonist who doesn’t conquer, commandeer, or triumph in the conventional sense. This sensibility is already being developed in our culture as we struggle to reshape social hierarchies and work to dismantle patriarchy, racism, and economic inequity. The Dark Mountain Project takes it a step further by demoting humanity from the top of a hierarchy of our own making. This idea interested me.

Proponents of the Dark Mountain Project have pursued a range of measures, from moving to rural communities; using “human-scale technologies,” such as scything, that put man into a more intimate relationship with his environment; and engaging in permaculture, small-scale farming, and lower-impact draws on resources like water and energy. But why? If they believe, as they say, that we are too far gone, that civilization is already careening toward its certain demise, why adjust our behavior?

From my own small experiment in being more conscious about my personal environmental impact, I’m starting to understand. Aligning our actions with our values feels right because it is determined and consistent. It’s not exactly hard, but it’s definitely not lazy. We don’t’ give in—we’re thoughtful in many small ways throughout the days and weeks, and that feels like a kind of support we can give to ourselves, to our ideas. To me, the actions are important insofar as they clarify a vision we hold for the world, one that we can demonstrate and share. It may seem inconsequential from the outside, but, as I’m learning, it feels revitalizing and clear, if approached not from a sense of duty or judgment but from a dedication to the idea that the self (and, by extension, community) can prosper through incremental change and the power of our choices.

At least it still fits in a bag?

At least it still fits in a bag?

Trash in June (Homemade Toothpaste in California) by J. Makary

My trash for June 2016.

Two experiences converged at the beginning of 2016 to make me consider more deeply the role of stuff in my life: my residency at RAIR, a program for the development of artists’ projects at an industrial recycling plant in Northeast Philly, and an impending cross-country move from Philly to Los Angeles, which I wanted to do as cheaply as possible. Less stuff means less to (pay to) move, and I downsized considerably after filling a house (and basement) with things purchased, inherited, and sometimes forgotten.

Going through the belongings I’d accumulated in ten years in Philadelphia was more taxing and emotional than I expected. For every kitchen tool, thrifted sweater, Xeroxed reading from grad school, cherished plant, and piece of hand-me-down furniturein other words, for every single thing I owned in the houseI had a series of questions. Do I use this? Do I need it? Is it valuable? Who gave it to me? How long have I owned it? Is my identity pinned to it? Would my mother be upset if I got rid of it? And finally, if it really seemed useless to meIs it recyclable?

At Revolution Recovery, the plant which houses RAIR, it turns out that quite a lot can be recycled. But this privately owned plant has devised waste streams and revenue streams that haven’t been implemented on the municipal level, meaning that much of what we throw out through city systems could be recycled if systems were in place to do so.

The guys at Revolution Recovery go about their work methodically, unflinchingly, with camaraderie. The residency experience is similarly balancedhard work, threaded through with moments of levity and curiosity and experimentation. But a hollowness was gutting me during all the time I spent on-site, confronted by the massive piles of trash and truck after truck of construction and demolition debris, office clean-outs, and 1-800-GOT-JUNK hauls. This is how we live. This is how we live. This is how we live.

At RAIR, in a "Where's Waldo?" way, in 2015. Yes, I'm smiling. (It's fun there. Plus, most of that stuff is about to be recycled, unlike curbside trash and waste we haul to the dump.)

I shot a vaguely postapocalyptic video piece at RAIR that combines documentary footage of daily plant operations with performances inspired by natural disasters and acts of war. I am editing the footage now. I’m in love with this work and grateful for the opportunity to see the underside of our commodity culture up close and ungarnished. I feel inspired to consider what I bring into my life, into my living space, and what evidence of my consumer habits I will leave behind.

Those piles made me feel something: astonished, sad, helpless, guilty. I let those emotions drive a new experiment to reduce the amount of waste I generate. What you see here is my waste material, from the entire month of June, not including toilet paper, paper towels, and dental floss. This is the stuff that can’t be recycled through Los Angeles’ municipal system. I won’t be going Zero Waste; that feels too daunting. Instead, I decided to see how easy it might be to change my buying habits, and I started by making purchasing decisions based on packaging. This led to some immediate and unexpected changes.

  •  Started making DIY toothpaste and deodorant because packaging for these store-  bought products are hard to recycle.
  •  Stopped using Q-tips and cotton balls.
  •  Ice creamswitched to plastic pint containers until I discovered that the waxed  cardboard containers are recyclable in LA, after all.
  •  Candyswitched to products packaged only in paper, foil, and cardboard, with no  plastic wrap (Toblerone, Mike & Ikes). I have a massive sugar habit, so these restrictions  were welcome.
  •  I mainly use a menstrual cup but occasionally use tamponsopted for OB brand  because there is no applicator (but they are wrapped individually in thin plastic).
  •  Cloth napkins, at home and at the studio.
  •  Cut back on all packaged foodsat the end of the month I moved and relied a bit more  on frozen foods, which all contained a sheet of thin plastic that couldn’t be recycled.
  •  Cooked more and reduced take-out foods (although styrofoam take-out containers are  recyclable in LA).
  •  Was composting food waste at my sublet. Will be getting a composting bin for the new  house!
  •  I did not want that DVD but I couldn't refuse it! (Yeah, nobody else would want it,  either.)
  •  Recyclable options for pens and toothbrushes are out of my budget.
  •  The biggest bummer was the sandwich bag that turned out to be paper fused with  plastic, with condiment packages hidden inside. :(

These adjustments were relatively easy for me, although this new order of decision-making slowed me down at the store. I realize these choices may not feel viable for people with other needs. Someone asked me "Why bother?" In my next post I'll offer some reflections on the influence of The Dark Mountain Project on the piece I shot at RAIR, thoughts on Zero Waste, and how small actions like reducing household waste still feel like they matter.