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 furniture—in other words, for every single thing I owned in the house—I 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 me—Is 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 balanced—hard 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.
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 cream—switched to plastic pint containers until I discovered that the waxed cardboard containers are recyclable in LA, after all.
- Candy—switched 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 tampons—opted 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 foods—at 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.