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  • Writer's pictureErik Herman

Where "Away" do we Throw Things and Who are the "Garbage People"?

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

I honestly didn't intend for garbage, recycling, waste, junk, to become the main topic of my blog. I do have lots of other interests, I promise. But it really is a pervasive theme--with everyday things always headed "away". I'm in the thick of it with junk as my preferred creative medium. People also donate a wide array of junk to the Free Science Workshop. What gets thrown away is an excellent barometer for the extreme economic disparities that exist in the world today.

I believe firmly that every neighborhood in the world deserves a Community Science Workshop, and CSWs deserve a place in every neighborhood. CSWs are the answer to two of the biggest problems in our world today--a lack of understanding and care for our planet, and a lack of understanding and care for each other.

This post deserves a whole blog unto itself, but let me attempt to scratch the surface.

A CSW is part of the natural order of things in a post-neolithic world. It's a place for a collective of tools and materials where exploration, innovation, and productivity can, and inevitably does, occur. CSWs are good for the stuff and the people among it. CSWs are good for the people and the stuff among them. I hope you're beginning to see the pattern. Right now on the front lines everyday I can say pretty confidently that the people (kids) are getting more out of CSW's than the stuff is. What does Erik mean here about stuff getting something out of anything? I mean that in a natural state the stuff should be part of a flow--usually a circular one. Look at the water cycle. Water when we're done with it doesn't go to some final resting place--a water landfill. It's part of a continuum. However long that might take we never think of the water as "used up". What if we thought of all the other stuff the same way? Glasses, nails, cans, cardboard (without tape) are all pretty easy to envision doing this cycle thing. Not to say that their cycle is easy or doesn't take time/energy to make happen.

In Cairo there is a place, Manshiyat Nasser, at the foot of the Mokattam hills that has been nicknamed "Garbage City". The people who live there, the Zabbaleen, go door to door in Cairo to collect trash. Zabbaleen means "Garbage People" (Zabbaleen). In the US, we recycle 32% of our waste (data from 2018 ). Compare that percentage to the amount of stuff you put out to the curb to recycle versus how much you put out as trash...that will give you a bit of insight into how much "recycling" is actually recycled. Thanks to the "Garbage People", 85% of Cairo's waste is recycled.

Cairo is only one example of this phenomenon where people in low socioeconomic conditions are collecting and making good again the castoffs of the middle and upper class. There are many. The community of Agogbloshie, Ghana is considered the largest e-waste site in the world. Here is an excellent video about it.

People in Asuncion, Paraguay, who had nowhere else to live made homes in a flooding-prone area called Cateura. The city also allowed a landfill to be put there. Inhabitants work in the landfill and have made recycling a profession. This is the community where the Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments was born.

When someone comes around to pick up and reclaim the value in what you throw away...who is really the "garbage person" here?

There are obviously huge safety concerns with the informal processing of garbage--everything from contracting Hepatitis to being exposed to heavy metals--but with education and some intentionality in our waste streams we could divert the path to doing some good in the world. The exercise of this diversion--when the right hand knows what the left hand is doing--can even lead to smarter choices by the consumer. E-waste (also called WEEE) is growing at 3% per year (this is about a 2 million metric ton increase per year on top of our 53.6 Mt in 2019).

As much as we might do as an individual, a household, a community, the elephant in the room here is something we humans cannot easily compete with. Manufacturing. Aside from supporting and advocating for policy changes about, for instance, right to repair, the biggest voice we really have as everyday consumers is in where we put our money. If you have enough to invest, please consider putting it where it can grow while making a positive impact on the planet. Investors with Green Century Funds were able to put enough pressure on Apple that they are finally--after years of terrible-for-the-consumer/terrible-for-the-environment repair policies--supporting self service repair of some of their new products (read more about this here).

It's really difficult to change entrenched ways-of-being in a disposable world. Real change, lasting change, in any culture, begins with kids. Let's slow down the crazy train. Let them have a place and a time to take a break from those screens. Whatever important documents that printer pumped out during its too-short usuable lifetime, let its motors now dance around the floor as part of a wacky remote control robot to the delight of its inventor.

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