Sunday, March 13, 2011

The "No More Trash" Principle

So here's the basic idea: nothing ever goes away.

There is no loss of anything. The old family car that, every blazing summer afternoon, smelled like melting plastic? It's not gone.  It's still here. That strawberry shortcake you had six years ago at that amazing July 4th BBQ? Still around. The clippings from your first haircut as an infant? Yup. It's here. Somewhere.

We're not just talking about Dunkin Donuts' styrofoam cups or the waste from Chernobyl. We're talking about everything. This is the Law of the Conservation of Mass.

Ask any science geek worth her horn-rims and she'll tell you: there is a finite amount of energy and mass in the universe. When you burn paper, the paper doesn't go away-- it just looks and smells different. Some of the paper changes molecularly into something else. Some of the paper turns into energy. But none of it disappears or no longer exists. (Note for my super nerd readers: yes, laws of special relativity, as speculated by Einstein and his followers/critics, makes my explanation way too simple. To that I say: humbug! It's not bad for a layman. Or laywoman, for that matter. Oh, and by the way-- what's up, super nerds? I love you guys).

As my friend from college, Todd Kreidler, once said, “it's all cut and paste, man.” He was talking about playwriting and, by association, the creative process itself. Picasso knew it, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg counted on it, and Girl Talk celebrates it: genius is found in artfully re-purposing and re-using somebody else's stuff.

We don't need more stuff-- we need to find a way to use and reuse the stuff we have. Think about that. I'm not talking about finding a new use for that grocery bag. I'm talking about everything: banana peels, candy wrappers, smoke from cigarettes, spit, loud sounds (and soft ones), junk mail, broken lamps, etc. All of these things have energy and useful matter.

Thinking like this makes big issues such as the energy problem or food shortages seem, well, kind of solvable.

A Lack Of Imagination
There is value locked up in everything. One man's trash is another man's treasure, we say-- but imagine if we decided, culturally, that there was no distinction between trash and treasure? What if we valued things based on their usability in any situation, rather than their usability in a given current situation? “Trash,” in fact, is anything without an easily definable use. Once a use is found for a piece of trash, it becomes a thing of value.

And now let's think really big for a moment: what if we didn't just look at materials this way-- but at EVERYTHING in this way? Movement, ideas, relationships, mistakes, regrets-- anything we toss off. Often, we see our limits in our resources as what keeps us from moving forward. We stand among our trash heaps, dwarfed by our wasted chances and resources. We throw so much away.

We need to start using the trash. Not for the environment-- although it would certainly help. Not because it's moral (although recycling must be the best example of good stewardship one can imagine). We need to start using the trash because IT'S NOT TRASH. 

"Trash" is, simply, the word we use when we stop believing in the potential of something that has been used.  It's foolish.

We need to have the imagination to re-see what we look at every day. This is what artists do. And business innovators and scientists do. They have the bravery, talent, and energy to see the world in a different way.

Smarter Reusing:  Borrow-Swaps
I have an example: look online. There is a growing “borrow-swap” sector that enables people to take their junk and share it with people who need it more. It started with ebay-- but this is a whole new thing. Craigslist, Zip Car, and Home Away are just a couple of manifestations.  These “borrow-swaps” allow people to borrow cars, rent apartments, lend step ladders, bike helmets, fishing rods, saws, sewing machines, etc. The basic idea is that we all have too much stuff-- and that we are wasting the opportunity to re-use what just sits there. It's beautiful.

Heck, think about composting.  Gross?  Sure.  But way smarter than wrapping biodegradable waste in plastic and sending it to a landfill.  Swap your trash for food and flowers.

A Call To You, Reader Person
The applications are limitless.  Think about the difference in required energy between making a meal from scratch and making a meal from leftovers. Compare the difference in the outcome.  

Now, apply it to your whole life. What are you trying to replace from scratch? What are you throwing away? What of that experience, pain, and junk would be useful to you if you could use your imagination to unlock it?

We need to stop putting so much energy into new stuff and putting more energy into re-using and re-purposing all the stuff we have. We're not going to run out of stuff!

Let's get to work, people. Start thinking. All you artists without jobs (or with horrible jobs), let's do this. Let's turn our trash into treasure-- it's the future, if we're going to have one.


  1. I didn't realize, but because of zipcar and homeaway, I've got a good head start. BUT— smaller, physical things are the ones I need to work on. Water bottles, bottles of any kind, wrappers, plastic. All bad things. All bad things that I saw washed up on the shore of a carribbean island. It's just not right.

  2. yard sales baby!


  4. Nice work spicy. Very much enjoyed it. Oh yeah, what's up.

  5. Very much appreciate the topic, close to my heart. And, as always, nicely said.

    One: You didn't mention people but you cast a wide enough net so it's implied. "We need to stop putting so much energy into new stuff and putting more energy into re-using and re-purposing all the stuff we have" could easily be applied to those pesky, boring, worn-out relationships in our lives.

    Two: Recycling as "the best example of good stewardship one can imagine" is slightly off, at least our municipal/industrial kind of recycling. A friend, who is into "industrial hygiene," points out: it's a dirty process that pollutes water. We toss that bottle of Poland Spring water into the recyc. bin as good stewards but it continues its life as contaminated water and a "green" tote bag laced with lead (recycled and made in China, of course).

  6. You'd be proud of me, Michael. Aluminum water bottles, bringing fruit peels home from work for the compost, clothes from yard sales, electronics from Craigslist, furniture reclaimed from the side of the road (freshened with garage sale paint) and trying hard to avoid "made in China" (but that's another blog)... Freecycling, swapping & finding treasures- that already exist- for friends & family, so they don't always need to buy new. Perhaps a good start, but the reality is that we all still have a long way to go.

    I believe the best teaching tool is often by example, but a close second is just offering up the subject, (as you did well), which expands it's energy. Sparking Discussion. Ideas. Feelings. And hopefully, passion.

    Always, always thinking... Striving to evolve & enjoying the journey!