Garbage speaks volumes. By systematically and scientifically studying modern waste, we can discover how the climate crisis came to be, and where we need to direct our efforts in order to effectively address it.
Americans are among the world’s top garbage producers, discarding the equivalent of about 26 plastic water bottles per person per day and creating more food waste than any other country. The vast majority of our waste goes directly into landfills. We are also among the world’s top shoppers; Consumer spending was at a rate of $14.24 trillion in the first quarter of 2019, and about one-quarter of spending tends to be on non-durable goods. Much of what we purchase every year ends up in landfills within six months.
At Barnard College, I teach a first-year seminar course called “Things and Stuff” in which we explore the connection between what we make, buy and discard, and the larger climate crisis. During one memorable week each semester, I encourage a group of smart, ambitious young women to get up close and personal with four bags of garbage collected on campus, as a way to physically confront the consequences of our choices.
Just as archaeologists study ancient middens to learn about long-extinct societies, those in the emerging field of garbology look to modern-day trash to answer a wide range of questions.
When my most recent class of 16 students snapped on purple latex gloves and gathered around smelly bags of trash for the first time, several of them grimaced, but they gritted their teeth and stuck with it. In layman’s terms, they found what was — to them — a shocking number of items that could have been recycled, composted, or otherwise saved from a landfill. Holding up a Poland Spring plastic bottle, one student exclaimed: “but this is recycling 101!”
Recycling wasn’t the lesson, though. That’s because, frankly, it’s not nearly enough. Trying to solve the climate crisis with recycling alone is like trying to put out a dumpster fire with a garden hose. Rather, the assignment is a way to physically experience how our collective choices about the things we buy, use and all-too-quickly discard represent wasted natural resources, disregard for human labor and embodied carbon emissions.
In picking through the trash — and examining an iPhone, mending a T-shirt and studying an Easter Island statue — we examine the economic assumptions, social norms and public policies that shape our choices, and the results of those choices. And when those results are smelly or sticky and right in front of us, it helps drive the point home.
As Barnard’s director of campus sustainability and climate action, my hope is that this experience gives them a visceral sense of how our collective cultural failure to respect the environment and all living beings on the planet looks, feels and smells. Carelessly sorted waste is just one small example, but experiencing it personally can kick-start a more fundamental, all-encompassing understanding of much broader issues. Though today’s youth will be forced to reckon with the climate crisis on a massive scale, even one small-scale classroom exercise can illustrate that we must all think hard about our choices, and the systems and policies that shape them, each and every day.
My students’ response to the poorly-sorted trash they encountered was horror, disgust — and action. Today, Barnard students are leading a recycling education campaign on campus, they are helping to shape our campus emissions reduction policies, and they joined the more than 4 million young people around the globe who marched for climate action on Friday.
On issues small and large, from four bags of trash to agreements made at the UN, by making the results of our current choices real to our students in our classrooms, we can equip them to tackle these challenges when they leave our campus. One class at a time, one object at a time, we need to conceive deep, systemic changes to the way we use our resources, to the policies we prioritize, and how we live.
If we don’t, garbage won’t simply serve as a useful classroom exercise — it will serve as a record of the mistakes that may consign our planet to a scary future.
Goldmark is the director of campus sustainability and climate action and an associate professor of professional practice in theater at Barnard College.