Trash is something of a passion of mine. It’s an absolutely fascinating social phenomena, from the middens of ancient archaeological sites to the treasure-rich dumpsters up the street. Among my many unfinished projects is a book draft detailing about a hundred kinds, and the host of ways each can be recycled on a household basis into anything from food to clothing to housing itself. After a few hundred hours of research into the topic, one simple thesis became apparent – there really is no such thing as “garbage”, at least in an objective sense. The entire notion is totally socially constructed, and every bit a part of our industrial economy. As a society and economy, we act more like a single digestive tract than an ecosystem, devouring and disposing of resources on a colossal scale without much thought to using any of them efficiently or sustainably. If three words sum up the industry, they would be “mining in reverse”, and it’s every bit as destructive, toxic and wasteful. Garbage represents an enormous untapped resource which our current municipal “recycling” efforts only begin to scratch the surface of.

A few recent stories have caught my attention on the matter, from the recent three-piece series on littering to the new controversy regarding a council suggestion to ease recent bag limits on garbage collection. In the latter, especially, people are quick to complain that reducing waste and sorting garbage is far too much work. Having put my garbage out tonight after the rest of the house went to bed, I can’t say that I find it to be an “unbearable burden”, even when compared to basic tasks such as dishes or sweeping. Also, since we often produce less than a full bag a week of garbage (I cleaned the basement until my second bag was full), unscrupulous neighbours are often taking advantage of the curb in front of my house – not something I mind terribly until it starts putting my home over the limit (something they clearly don’t mind). Though I’m never totally sure who did it, it’s more than one neighbouring house, and none of them ever seem to have blue boxes out…

These resources are not cheap. We may pay highly subsidized prices for things like paper, metals and plastic, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t broader consequences which come with each and every piece of trash. Beyond the obvious environmental issues there’s the question of supply – particularly pressing now as most resources have been rising in price and declining in avialability for most of the last decade. Then there’s the human cost – all the work which goes into extracting the materials, producing the goods, shipping and retailing them, then finally collecting and disposing of them. Also, since both extraction and disposal (as well as other stages) tend to be quite toxic, they often have huge and undocumented costs among neighbours, particularly indigenous and third-world peoples. Locally, the Six Nations battle against the Cayuga dump expansion would be a good example of the kind of environmental racism here, as would be broader issues like E-waste, mining and energy.

Many argue that because this process “creates jobs” that it provides additional benefits. The fallacy here is to assume that any of us are really gaining by working more only to have those wages turned over to the price of disposing of our goods and re-producing them. Whether we pay these costs through taxes, increased prices or a generally falling standard of living, it’s clear that a huge cost comes attached to these “jobs”. Employing a few poor people at the price of gouging the rest of poor people for the purpose of a needless and destructive task does working people no favours. It’s work for the sake of work, and we all know who the actual winners are. By this logic, there’s no reason to own anything past the first day, and we might as well regularly burn down our homes. Any system of economic measures which ignores the ongoing benefits provided by goods which aren’t being replaced is deeply flawed. Then again, our standard of living’ was never really the point, was it?

If this entire process takes place for the sake of one “use”, then the entire process can become twice as efficient by using something twice. This kind of economic activity multiplies the real-world benefits many times over. There are some issues of diminishing returns as things break down, but there are additional benefits if it can be salvaged for spare parts or materials. As most people know, these things always tend to seem like useless clutter until you have to pay $40 for a replacement cog the day after you throw a whole box of them out.

It’s also worth considering what kind of value we place on these goods. There are many “theories of value”, and many distinctions within them. One can consider the work and resources which went into producing them, their “use-value” to you as an individual, judge them on aesthetic qualities or rate them their relative scarcity in the overall economy (usually with market pricing). Capitalists prefer the last option, and it’s easy to see how this leads to the widespread de-valuing of all kinds of goods while ignoring all other standards of value. When considered in a capitalist society where urban and residential land is highly priced, that makes storing ‘junk’ expensive, and drives people to throw out everything they can. Most other societies of nearly any kind one can name took the opposite view – using local resources as efficiently as possible first, and relying on distant trade goods second (if at all). There are very good reasons to do this – especially in terms of labour, the environment, economics and aesthetics as pretty much any hand-crafted goods show. These practices make the most use possible out of raw materials (instead of the least) and build diverse and decentralized forms of production, which are exactly what we need right now.

Of course, these views have consequences too. First, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy things which soon have to be thrown out, even if they’re “cheaper” (at the store…). Cheap manufacturing methods, low-quality materials and poor designs will soon render them useless for not only their intended task, but also most forms of re-use. Things which can be maintained and repaired, which are worth disassembling for materials and which don’t require specialized or proprietary parts. Questioning “garbage” means questioning the way our productive systems have been structured over the last century to produce mainly garbage.

Under our economic system, consumers bear all (accounted for) costs of the process, so it’s only natural to try to get us to consume as much as possible – if collecting the profits from this process is your goal. If you wish to use these goods, rather than sell them, this doesn’t do you much good. When you simply want a refrigerator which refrigerates, you gain nothing from having to replace it regularly, yet you do pay for it. Packaging often makes up close to half of the price of goods (especially at the supermarket), but it doesn’t give us much other than more to clean up. This isn’t a problem that city regulations can solve for us, it’s one we need to approach ourselves. The only point in this process where these goods get the attention necessary to really creatively re-use them. It’s also the point where they cost us nothing and involve the lowest transportation costs (negative in both counts if they don’t have to be collected and disposed of as a result). There’s an absolute wealth of materials flowing through our homes and neighbourhoods, and we’re the ones who pay for it if we don’t use them. Diverting “waste” in this way is only possible at the household and community level, and that’s exactly where it’s needed. We don’t have to blast apart mountains and acid-leach the rubble to get it, drill kilometres under the ocean floor or deforest large areas, but if we simply throw this stuff away, that’s what will have to happen again.