Hyperrhiz 24

Talking Trash: The Rhetoric of Waste Bins

Cynthia P. Rosenfeld
North Carolina State University

Citation: Rosenfeld, Cynthia P.. “Talking Trash: The Rhetoric of Waste Bins.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 24, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/024.e06

Abstract: There is no mythical “land of away.” We have a trash problem, and plastic is a major contributor. In 2015, we generated 34.5 million tons of municipal solid plastic waste (EPA, “National Overview”), and it is only a part of our waste. Ironically, plastic containers, from household cans to plastic liners to the large green curbside bins, held that solid waste at one time—and were soon to be their own contribution to the 3.4 million tons. The banality, opacity, and capacity of our waste bins facilitate consumer culture. Reflective design, however, can help us query our trash practices by defamiliarizing the trashcan through making its attributes and properties visible and explorable. “Talking Trash” is an act of reflective design in which I wove a waste bin from the environmental articles of various magazines. Next, I set up a Twitter account, @Talking_Trash_, to tweet about items I was placing in the bin. Then, I considered the pedagogical value of Talking Trash and similar reflective design projects in environment humanities classes. Ultimately, I argue that our trashcans engage in a rhetoric of the everyday that encourages consumer practice and waste-world-making. Talking Trash provides insight into the public and private natures of waste, the revealing and concealing our bins promote, and the affordances of materiality present in our waste bins. Talking Trash is an intervention of hope.

Keywords: rhetoric, trash, Anthropocene, reflective design, pedagogy, waste-world-making, materiality.

Where is “away”? When we say we throw something “away,” where do we imagine it goes? It seems more of us are closer to flat-earthers than we realize, believing there is some way to shove the trash off the planet. In her book The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard says there is “away” by burial, by burning, and by sight, but our trash never truly leaves us (Leonard 206-228).

We have an MSW problem—municipal solid waste, or “trash.” The Environmental Protection Agency defines MSW as “the various items consumers throw away after they are used”—items including everything from computers to lawn clippings to uneaten food and, of course, lots of plastic. In 2015, plastic products generated 34.5 million tons of MSW, an increase in overall MSW generation from 1990 (EPA, “National Overview”). The effects of plastic as waste have become increasingly salient, thanks to art works like Chris Jordan’s Gyre, which uses 2.4 million pieces of plastic collected from the Pacific Ocean to depict an oceanic wave; documentaries like Albatross and A Plastic Ocean, which show us the suffering our plastic causes both human and nonhuman animals; books like The Story of Stuff (Leonard), which provide the sociohistorical context alongside images that show the limits of plastic’s elasticity as a seal is choked; the viral YouTube video “Sea Turtle with Straw Up Its Nostril” that allows viewers to watch and listen as a straw is removed from a sea turtle’s nostril; and public relations campaigns, like Starbucks’ plan to eliminate plastic straws so as to cut down on plastic generation (Starbucks).

To be clear, plastic is not the only or even the most abundant MSW, and MSWs are not the only kind of waste; waste materials include construction and demolition debris, industrial waste, and wastewater sludge. Plastic is a smaller percentage of waste generation than paper and paperboard products (84.8 million tons) and about equal to yard trimmings (34.7 million tons). However, unlike paper items and lawn trimmings that can decompose in a few weeks (in ideal conditions, which landfills are not), plastic can take anywhere from 10 (the thin plastic bags) to 1,000 years to decompose (EPA, “National Overview”).

The wide range of decomposition times owes to the fact that because plastic is not a uniform substance but actually an interesting family of substances. From celluloid to nylon, plastic refers to a broad variety of synthetic materials that are malleable when soft. These moldable materials helped to democratize luxury goods, making look-a-likes of heavier, more expensive materials. Because plastic can be anything and everything, it can also be characterized as nothing—a nothingness that is everywhere. Once seen as unnatural, plastic has come to offer “unprecedented control over the material environment” (Meikle 9).

Plastic holds a special relationship to our trash generation: it is often used to hold our other trash. Outside of the large metal bins at apartment and commercial complexes and at waste management sites, many household and business trash receptacles are made from plastic. To keep the bins clean, ironically, and to facilitate hauling trash from place to place, many people choose to line those plastic bins with plastic bags (which may have been stored in plastic bags which, themselves, become trash for the plastic bag and plastic bin—the plastic-waste equivalent of Matryoshka dolls). All of the layers of plastic work together to obscure from our senses the aesthetics of our trash practices. The artifacts and processes involved in discarding materials at home is just the beginning of how the detritus of consumer culture gets backgrounded from consciousness.

For many, waste disposal works as a kind of black box: We know that our trash is driven to (in rural settings) or picked up (in urban and suburban settings) and taken to waste management sites, and we know that landfills exist. But landfills are kept out-of-sight. The diversity of their contents, the magnitude of their scale, and the processes of decomposition and what the intermingling of substances produce are barely distant thoughts for many. Further, we do our best to obscure the process of generating MSW in our homes. Most trashcans—from stainless steel to the large, municipality-provided green plastic bins—are opaque, and they get lined with black or only partially-translucent liners. The job of the receptacles and the liners seems straightforward and harmless: hold the trash until it goes off to the waste management site and, from there, to a landfill or the ocean, or “some place.” There is a striking juxtaposition here between the utter banality of these receptacles’ everydayness—the bins and liners that fill homes, schools, businesses, and even parks—and the distant and unfamiliar infrastructure and destinations of waste management.

The trouble with the banality of our trash practices is the problem of seriality (Sartre 256-65). Sartre explains how individuals and their actions are part of an aggregated formation of a whole, and yet individuals do not see how they and their acts are part of a series, an overarching pattern. We live separately, in a plurality of isolations due to industrialization, and we engage in our trash practices separately. We cannot realize, phenomenologically, what it is to be producing collective amounts of trash through our individual practices. Our municipal solid waste is generated at home; it seems so private, so individual. We are engaging “separately as identical instances of the same” (Sartre 262) as waste-producers sending our unwanted items to the landfill.

A short story may help to illustrate the seriality of waste-producing practices. I live in a rural locality where I take my trash to a waste management center. Normally, I place my trash bag in a large bin. I will see a few other bags at a time, before they get compacted and shoved into another large, opaque metal container. Other times, when the compactor is full, I have to toss the bag above my head into yet another large, metal bin. I see no other bags until it is full and then the tops of the bags hang over—truly the tip of the iceberg. However, in 2019, the compactor was broken and the large bin was absent; for a few days, people created a trash heap of all their individual bags. I had the sudden Sartrean realization of being part of a system with countless others (Figure 1). Suddenly, my 13-gallon, white plastic bag was anything but banal. My particular point of entry into the world of waste-management infrastructure—that is, being required to take my trash to a disposal site which was broken—afforded a unique opportunity to experience anew my participation in waste-production. Given that many people live in localities with curbside pickup, I wondered what it would take to disrupt the banality of trash practices in suburban and urban homes.

Figure 1. When the trash compactors break down, a mound of trash bags accumulates on the cement  and soil, and waste-world-making (Hird) is made more visible.

One way to reanimate thinking about trash is to alter how it is encountered at the moment of disposal. Enter “reflective design,” the primary purpose of which is “to defamiliarize an object by making its constituent parts, attributes, properties, or affordances visible and explorable, thereby revealing potential sites of change” (Hancock et al. 77). In this paper, I engage in reflective design—a rethinking of the trashcan—to defamiliarize the trash receptacle and argue that, first, our everyday trash bins exert a rhetorical force that promote consumerism and encourage wasteful practices, and, second, reflective design can be a productive pedagogical technique for critical engagement in the environmental humanities.

I begin by situating trashcans in the Anthropocene and positioning them in a theoretical framework of agential realism. Next, I describe the method and materiality of my reflective-design intervention, “Talking Trash.” Then, I engage in a rhetorical critique that compares my store-bought trash receptacle with my reflective design project, specifically looking at how the materiality of each can affords different relationships with our waste through rhetorics of revealing and concealing and logics of public and private. Throughout, I raise questions of what Talking Trash can do. Ultimately, my goal is to illuminate how trashcans engage in a rhetoric of the everyday that encourages consumer practice and waste-world-making. Finally, I conclude by focusing on the hope offered by a reflectively-designed trashcan.

What Happens to Matter in the Anthropocene?

“Anthropocene” is a loaded term. It is at once used to describe the human imprint on the global environment (Steffen et al. 842)—a time in which the detritus of industrial, fossil-fueled human activity has created a new geological layer—and also a rhetorical device meant to highlight the destruction humanity has provoked (Haraway, Staying 44). Two ways of pronouncing the word highlight different aspects of ugliness. When pronounced “anthro-po-cene,” the emphasis is placed on the “anthro,” reminding us we humans are to blame. When pronounced “anthrop-o-cene,” the last two syllables sound like “obscene.” Parikka (1) goes so far as to label the era the Anthrobscene. Obscene is an apt term to describe “the self-alienating effects of recognizing climatic catastrophe but being unable to act” (Markley 26). Latour seems to concur when he writes, “How can we not feel inwardly undone by the anxiety of not knowing how to respond?” (Down to Earth 6).

Although the Anthropocene was coined for a geological context, its rhetorical effects resonate into moral and social spheres of human activity. Markley writes that the Anthropocene provokes new modes of imagining time, selfhood, and narrative. The Anthropocene beckons us to reassess our relationships with time, to contemplate how our actions today both disrupt the deep time of the past (e.g., as by excavation, mining, drilling) and the future (e.g., the unknowable, long-term consequences of our nuclear waste containers, zombie media, and the effects of climate change) (Markley 15-23). The term can be read as a plea to disrupt Sartre’s seriality and to recognize that each Anthropo is a part of the whole of the Anthropocene.

The term Anthropocene, however, is also tricky, raising difficult questions. When did the Anthropocene start? Was it with the machines of the Industrial Revolution; the origins of agriculture; the first use of stone tools to overhunt megafauna, such as mastodons (Lewis and Maslin 171-180)? If we trace the Anthropocene back to the Stone Age, does that mean that the essence of technology is a mindset of instrumentality? And when we say “Anthropocene,” does that mean all humans bear equal responsibility for the ecological disruption? Blaming all humanity for the Anthropocene creates a human universalism that assuages neoliberal guilt (Haraway, Staying 47-49). Although these questions are significant, they are not the only ones we should be asking during a time of ecological crisis. In such times, we must also ask, how can we make the Anthropocene “as short and thin as possible” and “cultivate with each other in every way imaginable epochs to come that can replenish refuge” (Haraway, “Capitalocene” 80)?

One defining characteristic of the Anthropocene is that it is filled with the matter of humans’ things. Not only the land we “develop” (i.e, the framing of nature as natural resources and raw materials for humans) to build our dwellings or the planes, trains, and automobiles we use to get from here to there but also all of the things we throw away. Thus, to understand better the Anthropocene, we need to understand better “our” things and how their matter comes to matter (Barad, “Posthumanist” 801).  

One way that we can better understand the agency of matter is through new materialist rhetorical analyses. New materialism approaches matter as vital, transformative, morphogenetic, complex, pluralistic, and engaged in a relatively open process of becoming (Gries 5-7). Phenomena like the climate change of the Anthropocene have ushered in another marker of the epoch: it is time to “give material factors their due” (Gries 6). Karen Barad’s agential realism gives material factors their due through a material-discursive framework that explores phenomena’s relationality: “Agency becomes a distributed enactment of entangled things intra-acting within phenomena” (Barad, Meeting 235). Other relational ontologies similarly speak to the deep entanglement of human affairs and the more-than-human world. For example, in We Have Never Been Modern, Latour shows that matter matters because there is no such thing as separate, opposing spheres of humans/subjects/culture and things/objects/nature. Barad further explains that ontology, epistemology, and ethics cannot be separated. An ethico-onto-epistem-ology is “an appreciation of the intertwining of ethics, knowing, and being—since each intra-action matters” (Meeting 185). An agential realist approach to exploring and making sense of waste is thus one of thick, messy involvement all the way down.

In “The Phenomenon of Waste-World-Making,” Myra Hird takes an agential realist approach to explain the politics and ethics of waste: Waste is not a thing. If we conceive of waste as a thing, we risk thinking of waste as static and submissive. Waste is a world-making relationality; it is anything but static and submissive (Hird). My exploration of the rhetoric of the waste bin explores how the agency of trashcans is entangled in our trash practices.

We intra-act with our trash, or to put it differently, agency is realized through our relationships with trashcans, product packaging, “disposable items,” waste management trucks, landfills, highways, and datacenters (to name only a few agential phenomena) (Barad, Meeting 139-40). Acknowledging the agency of matter and more-than-human entanglements should not, however, be taken as relieving humans of ethical responsibility in their interactions (Bollmer 164-67). Rather, it should invite new questions like, how do/should we care for our things? How do/should our things care for us? Can not creating a thing be an act of care?

To attend to questions of care in our waste practices is to embed waste-production in the activities of care, or “everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our 'world' so that we can live in it as well as possible. That includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web” (Tronto 103). In the spirit of exploring how matter comes to matter and what it means to engage with waste care-fully, I offer an intervention of reflective design that illuminates the rhetorical agency of the trashcan through its intra-actions. The trashcan functions as part of the “rhetoric of the everyday” (Hauser 14). The agency of the trashcan—what it makes possible, what it reveals, what it conceals—is often backgrounded in the banal, the everyday, the routinized, but the everyday acts of engagement with the trashcan are constitutive of how we live in the world. Like Ahmed’s table in “Orientations Matter,” which orients us toward (at least) the room, the trashcan helps to orient us, to direct our bodies toward disposal. Both the store-bought trashcan and the handmade trash receptacle function rhetorically to shape and reinforce our beliefs and values about performing, confronting, resisting, remembering, commodifying, consuming, governing, and authorizing. But the rhetoric of an opaque, sturdy, plastic trashcan with a lid is different from the rhetoric of an open-air, flexible, paper trash basket that makes its contents visible. These are differences that make a difference, and which I aim to illuminate through my project.

Making Waste Matter: The Method and the Materials

My intervention into our current trash practices is a trash receptacle titled “Talking Trash.” First, I elaborate on reflective design as a critical intervention before discussing what the receptacle is and how it operates, and then describe how “Talking Trash” was made.

Reflective design takes a critical theory approach to design. In order to recognize thing-power, we must attend to a thing’s presence, bring to awareness a thing’s agency. Reflective design is used to interrogate, defamiliarize the mundane, and make visible an object’s properties and attributes. By illuminating parts and processes, reflective design exposes potential sites for transformation (Hancock et al. 77). “These designs act as a form of critique and argument that is established through the design of objects and through the communication of an object’s narrative of use” (Malpass 2).

For this intervention and analysis, I took two approaches to my reflective design project: First, I engaged in critical making to theorize and design the trashcan, and second, I engaged in autoethnographic analysis of my experience with the design. Critical making (Ratto 252; Ratto and Hockema 52) is “an elision of two typically disconnected modes of engagement in the world—‘critical taking,’ often considered as abstract, explicit, linguistically based, internal, and cognitively individualist; and ‘making,’ typically understood as material, tacit, embodied, external, and community-oriented” (Ratto and Hockema 52). If critical theory exists to help transform our thinking (Tharp and Tharp 307), then critical design exists to help bridge the gap between conceptual exploration and material instantiation. Critical making is well suited for pedagogical practice because the engagement with materials and technologies can “open up and extend critical reflection” (Hertz). In this study, critical theory was first used to interrogate my existing trash receptacles, and critical making was used to address the question, “How might this be otherwise?”

To create Talking Trash, I worked with paper strips cut from magazines to weave a basket. O’Gorman describes how weaving attunes us to the act of becoming: “To understand making as weaving, to embrace the unknowability that comes with haptics, is to accept the possibility of failure, the possibility that our idea of what we are making may very well not materialize in ways that we hope and expect. To take weaving seriously is to embrace an anti-platonic understanding of fabrication.” “Talking Trash” (the name I have given this project; see Figure 2) is a basket made from the paper of magazines (including the Sierra Club’s newsletter and Nature). Printed on these pages are articles about nonhuman animals, the environment, and climate change. The basket is woven such that there are gaps between squares, allowing a glimpse inside.

After weaving a new trash receptable, I then engaged in public autoethnographic reflection by logging my trash deposits on Twitter for several days. The activity of tweeting my trash performed a few functions: (1) it was a public exposure of the waste I was generating, (2) it brought greater self-awareness of my trash generation, and (3) it prompted me to inquire about alternatives to trash disposal for the items I was discarding. Reflective activities work to increase engagement in design practice (Tharp and Tharp, 307-8), to continue the questioning and exploring of new possibilities.  (Hereafter, whenever the term “Talking Trash” is used, it refers to the project as a whole—the basket and the posts to Twitter.)

Figure 2. The basket portion of Talking Trash is made from magazine paper. The paper is cut into equal-size strips and folded to create paper links.

Trashcans as Rhetorical Agents

In Becoming Animal, David Abram describes the “skin-tingling sensation” of his own insignificance that he felt while on a hike, overcome by the awe of the “outrageous scale of the larger Body we inhabit” (261). The sublime feeling was disrupted, however, when Abram came upon a metallic, white rectangle with black letters declaring, “PLEASE DEPOSIT WASTE HERE [with an arrow pointing to a large trash receptacle].” Abram says, “As soon as I see these black words on the white rectangle, the weirdest thing happens. The entire landscape deflates” (262). The scale of the landscape was suddenly very human. He tosses some paper he found in the trashcan and reflects on the power of the written word “to domesticate the bursting-at-the-seams agency of the wild” (262).

What struck me as I projected myself into Abram’s hike—he is an evocative writer—was less the presence of the written word than what the words were gesturing its audience towards: a trashcan in the middle of what had seemed to be pristine wilderness with “no trace of humankind” (260). In Abram’s example, we can see how our consumerist practices have oriented nature. The receptacle was surely placed there as an aid for keeping the landscape clean, but its presence also revealed a certain logic: an expectation of consumerist waste, even on nature walks. Reflective design can help glitch those pervasive logics by making trashcans show up differently to people, by drawing attention to the actual disposal unit.

Figures 3 and 4. A side-by-side comparison of the store-bought trashcan and the hand-woven trash basket.

Paper or Plastic: The Rhetoric of Trashcan Materiality

Reflecting on what this re-thought trash receptacle can do, I (1) discuss the rhetorical forces of the materiality and digital component of Talking Trash, and (2) compare my trash practices with Talking Trash to a store-bought trash receptacle (Figures 3-4). Talking Trash (Figures 2 and 4) entangles strips of magazine pages featuring climate change and nature stories to create a new kind of waste basket. The author of Paper Inventions imagined the resulting basket would be used to “hold your favorite possession” (Ceceri 71), but I wove the basket to hold our possessions when they are no longer desired—on their way to the mythical land of away. Even before I began tweeting my trash practices, Talking Trash was already a discursive site. The lack of a lid and the gaps in the weaving, as well as the materiality (stories cut, knotted, and wove with other stories), help communicate waste as the ongoing, relational process it is. The intervention of Talking Trash adds a step to Hird’s waste-world-making: waste-world-reflecting. Here, I use the word “reflecting” because of its association with reflective design, but I do not use the term to connotate any sense of essentialism. It may be more appropriate to label it in  a Baradian sense of “waste-world-diffracting,” in which I read my trash practices through the materiality of the trashcan and look for patterns that emerge. Below, I discuss how the aesthetics of the materiality and the revealing or concealing nature of the trashcans encourage different patterns of trash practices.

Talking Trash is small and made of paper. I can look at the earthy colors of the images used in the stories and read the words “climate,” “nature,” “environment” and so forth on my basket. Like Robin Wall Kimmerer (154), I can trace the life of the paper back to the tree and be reminded of the relationship between what I place in the basket and the earth. Also, as a paper product, its materiality has different affordances than a sturdy metal or plastic bin. If a cup with liquid were disposed of in Talking Trash, it would spill out of the basket and damage the receptacle. A half-eaten peach would also start to drip from the basket’s openings and soak through the paper. Talking Trash thus offers a glimpse into what happens at the landfill, where organics combine with rainwater and, in mixing with the other trash, create the toxic liquid known as leachate (Leonard 207-9). Because Talking Trash resists holding organics, its materiality may persuade other choices for discarding, like composting. Roughly one-third of our MSW is made up of organics (EPA, “Organic”), and those organics are not decomposing as they could and should because they are kept trapped in plastic containers that get lodged under paint cans that do not belong there (Leonard 209-11).

In contrast, the typical store-bought receptacle is opaque, holds 13 gallons worth of “waste,” and is made of a relatively sturdy plastic. While I recognize the agency of plastic, I am unable to muster a reflective moment for the life of the plastic (Kimmerer 155). Plastic is born in complex apparatuses of production that are hard to imagine. “Being mindful in the vast network of hyperindustrialized goods really gives me a headache. We weren’t made for that sort of constant awareness” (155). Beyond the actual receptacle, the purchased trash bin may be lined with a series of plastic bags, making it easier to move trash from the kitchen to elsewhere. I do not live in an area with municipal trash pickup, so my partner and I take our trash to the local waste management facility. I do not know if we throw away more or less than when we had our 50-gallon curbside container, but on more than one occasion, I have been ashamed by the heft of my haul and tried to pretend that a bag was less heavy than it actually was when I lifted it from my trunk. It is a moment of publicity, a moment when someone can see how I, too, am a neoliberal subject contributing to the Anthropocene. In those moments, I long for the comfort of the anonymity of the curbside pickup, and yet, it is those uncomfortable moments that help disrupt my state of seriality.

Staying with the discomfort, Talking Trash makes trash highly visible. Lidless and woven with open spaces, Talking Trash hides no layers of trash by subsequent disposals because we are able to peek at the entire contents, layer by layer. All of the aesthetics of trash that we wish to conceal—the sights, the smells, the amount—are made manifest with Talking Trash. The store-bought can, with its lid and opacity, excels at concealing. Sometimes I am rudely surprised when I press the button that pops open the lid of the store-bought container. Where did that smell come from? I only smell or see its contents when I directly engage with it. Further, each item becomes increasingly obscured as new items are placed in the bin. When I open the lid, I am only visually confronted with my most recent discarded items. The materiality of Talking Trash and its affordances of revealing function rhetorically to invite me to think backward and forward in time, considering how my trash practices intra-act with the earth. My store-bought trashcan hardly affords me the same sense of entanglement, the realization of waste-world-making. As a large, opaque container with a lid, it blackboxes the relationality of my consumer practices and their relationship with the world.

Landfill or Landfull? The Rhetoric of @Talking_Trash_

The next aspect of design, @Talking_Trash_ (Figure 5), still uses the woven paper basket but adds another rhetorical layer: the blurring of the boundaries of public and private inside the home. I set up a Twitter account, @Talking_Trash_, added a photograph of the basket as a profile shot and the picture from my local waste management facility when the trash compactor was broken, and tweeted when I threw things away.

The addition of @Talking_Trash_ moves the (seemingly) private practices of trash into the public domain. In Garbology, Edward Humes begins the book with a vivid description of two people who had to be rescued from their home because they became trapped by their own trash (1-4). The entire house had become their trash receptacle, and the smell exceeded the privacy of their home and alerted neighbors to a problem. Many watched, in horror and wonder, as the couple were evacuated. Humes points out that we are all hoarders, but most of us place the evidence of our hoarding in the landfill (4). The average American generates 102 tons of MSW in a lifetime. It seems we have achieved the filling of the land, and our trash sites could be better understood as landfull.

A screen-grab of the @Talking_Trash_ account.

@Talking_Trash_ takes a mundane, private act—placing a no-longer needed item in a waste bin—and makes it public. The store-bought trashcan is a nontransparent container filled with thick plastic bags that either get driven to a waste management center or placed in 50-gallon opaque curbside bins that are dumped weekly into the giant metal bins of waste management trucks and taken to a landfill kept out-of-sight of most Americans living their everyday lives. The trashcan-to-landfill process functions rhetorically to promote consumerism. @Talking_Trash_ affords a different, Sartrean rhetorical logic: I am a part of the whole. I am accountable—publicly—for the waste I produce.

I find the act of creating the tweets to be helpful in seeing what patterns emerge in my trash practices and how they could be changed. For example, when I placed a large plastic (bubble) mailer in the paper basket, I was struck by how much space it occupied. The Trash Talk bin would be filled in no time. When I went online to tweet about it, I realized I could also use the Internet to search for a way of recycling the plastic film in the mailer. There was: locations, like grocery stores, that recycle plastic shopping bags also recycle a variety of plastic films (PlasticFilmRecycling). Another insight to come from my public trash journal was the volume of plastic waste generated by the salad kits I buy in bulk as part of my vegetarian diet, highlighting how the greens of my diet were not-so-green. Creating tweets, an act of inventio, helped me find new ways to re-arrange, dispositio, items I no longer needed.

For a moment, I felt relief. Maybe I would not have to change my lifestyle any more and still do right with the earth. When I go to the grocery store, I can just take my accumulated plastic films to recycle. Of course, that relief was short-lived because I know we also have a recycling problem (Humes, “The US Recycling”). What we assume we are recycling is also ending up in the landfulls, and even when something does manage to get recycled, the energy involved in transporting and transforming the materials has a significant carbon footprint. This acknowledgment prompted me to tweet about things I was neither putting in @Talking_Trash_ nor my recycling bin but to encourage alternatives. For example, I found a local animal food store that sold treats as “loose leaf” items, no packaging. This entire process, starting with the first tweet, helped put in sharp relief (for me) the necessity of reducing and of advocating for infrastructural, systemic change in how we package and sell our products, as well as a (re)turn to a repair economy.

However, relief and inspiration are not the only emotional registers possible with Talking Trash. Rather than inspire a motivation to change, the public tweets may evoke feelings of environmental guilt and shame, or green guilt. Green guilt may be effective within environmental discourse communities, but it is an ineffective strategy for opening dialogue, inspiring deliberation, or facilitating consensus-building around environmental issues outside of those communities (Plevin 133-37). One avenue for continuing the engagement with design process of alternative trash receptacles is to bring the conversation into pedagogy.

The Pedagogical Value of Talking Trash

As noted previously, critical making and reflective design are productive pedagogical practices for opening up new possibilities and engaging with theory. Pedagogy can be helpful for reflective design because it creates a space for more perspectives to be brought to bear on a project.  Rethinking the trash can is one way students can materially engage with the curriculum of “sustainable development.” As Kahn (12-14) notes, sustainable development education can feel like institutional greenwashing when “sustainable” and “development” do not get unpacked and the latter seems to be weighted more heavily. Rethinking the trash can is not intended to shift the weight of responsibility onto individual students; rather, the aim is to generate awareness of the material, infrastructural, social, and political arrangements that help bring consumer societies into being. In this section, I explore two possibilities for engaging rethinking the trash can in environmental humanities courses with Talking Trash.

One possibility for engaging Talking Trash in the classroom is to assign a reflective design project as a major component of the course. Although I like to leave reflective design projects open to the students’ interests, it could also be productive to set up a prompt, such as, “Design a new trash can.” Trashcan designs may be highly technical (e.g., arranged with an Arduino and load cell set-up so that the trash can would send a tweet whenever something was placed in it) and/or artistic (e.g., a recycled-glass mosaic receptacle). Reflective design, like the digital humanities, “is not an attempt to teach students particular technical skills, applications, or platforms but a pedagogical approach that enables them to envision a relationship between themselves and knowledge production” (Risam 91). The goal is less about creating a functioning trash can than about the conceptual and material creative intervention involved in the process of foregrounding disposal practices.

To help students prepare for this assignment, it can be helpful to assign Ratto’s “Critical Making” and/or Justice’s “The Tackle Cache” (in which Justice creates a tackle cache with garbage found along a reservoir and describes the cache as an object-oriented heuristic for collective storytelling) early in the semester and devote a week to talking about methods. There are resources to view other reflective design and critical making projects (cf., some digital and textile examples of critical making projects can be found on “Critical Maker.Space”). The project is amenable to be completed in increments, such as: (1) shortly after the week on methods, students submit a project proposal; (2) a few weeks later, they submit a progress report; (3) toward the end of the semester, they present their projects in class; and (4) in a final report, they reflect on their project and learning. In an upper division media studies course in which I assigned a critical making project as described, students reported (via email and course evaluations) that the project was the most challenging and exciting assignment they had in their college career.

Another possibility for engagement is having students maintain a trash log, which could be used in conjunction with a reflective design project. Trash logs could involve making @Talking_Trash_ interactive and having students tweet the account, affording the opportunity not only to reflect on their own trash practices but also allowing a comparative account that disrupts the state of seriality. Other options include creating a local Twitter account for the class or asking students to keep a trash blog. The choice of platform and method of keeping track is less important than the experience of generating a shared accounting of trash practices.

However the trash is tracked, a reflective activity—a class discussion or essay, for example—can add a storytelling component to the experience that helps immerse students in the activity. Immersive experiences challenge conventions and can afford a greater sense of agency, and storytelling can help students process and structure the experience (Kidd and McAvoy). Jeff Ferrell’s Empire of Scrounge—in which the author details his experience living off the street through dumpster diving and trash picking and finds the things discarded in trashcans to be illuminative of societal inequality—is one text that could productively contribute to students’ thinking through their trash journals. Similar to Ferrell’s experience, a trash log offers critical and reflective engagement in the students’ everyday lives and can create ecological memories and habits (Dunkley and Smith 292).   

Kahn (54) asserts that if we want to cultivate a sense of planetary citizenship (as opposed to globalized neoliberalism), we need to dismantle the dichotomy of critical humanities and science. I agree and offer that one way to dismantle the dichotomy is to rethink who participates in design. In discourse intensive majors, like English and communication studies, students may not readily see themselves as designers. Reflective design projects—be it reflecting on one’s own critical making project or reflecting on how another’s design influences your behavior—open students up to new possibilities: how things could be otherwise and how they can intervene to realize new relations.

Taking Out the Trash

Talking Trash plays with the aesthetics of trash by putting unwanted sights and smells into the open and invites us to confront the accumulation of our waste, even as it adds to that waste. Tweeting with the account @Talking_Trash_ highlights the public nature of trash and may persuade people to seek alternatives and advocate for greener infrastructure. Unfortunately, it may also invite guilt and shame, as well as the requisite labor to create the tweets, and influence people not to use it. Any redesigned trashcan has the potential to disrupt mundane trash practices by bringing them to attention. However, any new design has its own material and sociopolitical entanglements that it conceals, or at least backgrounds, as well. And while reflective design may afford dramatic re-imaginings of the everyday, we should be tempered in our expectations. “Don’t ask a project to do something you, as individuals and corporate bodies, find yourselves incapable of accomplishing” (Latour, Aramis 292). Perhaps the most rhetorically powerful move that any reflectively designed trash receptacle could accomplish is to remind us of the complex, entangled relations involved in waste-world-making.  

There are many ways to return awe to our consumer practices, to shine light on the things that usher us into neoliberal subjectivity. Investigating our trash practices through the new materialist rhetoric of trash receptacles is only one way of exploring the problematics of consumerism and the Anthropocene. Talking Trash, in all its versions, is not a flawless design: the intervention inscribes new problems, mostly by virtue of what it conceals (e.g., the less-than-green materials needed to enable the tweeting feature), even as it reveals how a banal, everyday thing can be an unnoticed, powerful rhetor in our lives. Any version of Talking Trash can also induce cognitive dissonance, which often spurs defensiveness rather than motivation to change. However, Talking Trash is optimistic, as all interventions are: To intervene is to have hope. After all, to say, “one of [reflective design’s] primary purposes is to defamiliarize an object by making its constituent parts, attributes, properties, or affordances visible and explorable, thereby revealing potential sites of change” (Hancock et al. 77) is an enthymeme. The unspoken premise is the belief that change is possible and still matters.

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  1. For a helpful list questions to interrogate material media, see Bollmer 15-16.