One Man’s Trash

The secret history of waste, revealed

Artwork by Grace Franki Artwork by Grace Franki

Empty bottle of coke: plastic. Soggy remnants of an egg carton: paper. Half-empty bag of white bread: organic.

Today I’ve found three wallets. Unfortunately, all were empty, save for a broken Priceline card. I wonder if it was snapped before I found it. Was it thrown away in a last-ditch effort to curb cosmetics purchases? The next bag I open contains nothing but crumpled, sodden tissues. I pray to god this is accompanied by a box of cold and flu medicine. Found it; relief. In one motion, I scoop the tissues up and drop the pile into the bucket next to me. I hope they feel better soon. I pick up the next bag and hear the distinct sound of metal scraping metal that I’ve strongly associated with cleaning up in the morning after a party. Sure enough, empty cans of VB tear through the plastic and spill out. However, punctuated throughout the bulk of cans are smaller, inconspicuous bags. I peer closer. They’re nappies. Was this bag the product of a fun night or a family with a problem? I try not to judge, but really, those cans should’ve been recycled.

Broken photo frame: plastic? Glass? The picture inside is a Hallmark-style card whose cursive simply reads “best friends forever”.

It’s tough not to come up with stories every time I open a bag. For a moment, I’m given a brief glimpse into an anonymous household, like some sort of trash voyeur. Everybody has their own waste fingerprint; two bags are rarely similar in contents. I can’t help but mock the bags replete with expensive, branded food containers—“organic” and “green”, yet almost always with the thickest, most wasteful packaging.

Don’t get me wrong though, sorting isn’t romantic— it’s disgusting. Each bag is like an amniotic sac containing everything unloved or purposeless. The mask I was given prevents me from inhaling dust, but it does nothing for the smell. Right now, it’s not too bad; all this garbage is relatively fresh. But in a week when the maggots take hold, I’ll have to work faster.

Nothing but grass clippings. The familiar smell provides a respite from everything around me, an olfactory oasis. I wonder how big, or overgrown, the lawn must have been for this bag to end up ere.

There are three buckets beneath my table. The one on the left I’ve designated for glass, the middle for metals and the final for scraps of food. The pile in front of me is the contents of roughly two large household rubbish bags, delivered fresh from red-lidded bins via garbage trucks and straight onto the fold-out table before me. There are several more buckets placed strategically to my sides, fanning outwards from where I’m standing. The buckets are positioned strategically, with the closest buckets those I use the most, to minimise how much I will have to turn.

Buckets containing paper and plastic touch the outsides of my steel-capped boots, those with batteries and ceramics sit in my periphery. When a bucket is filled, I record its weight and throw it onto a pile on the floor to be removed and sent to the factory line, disposed like everything else. Over the course of five weeks, I will catalogue roughly a tonne of trash. But don’t worry, I’m wearing gloves.

Three empty cans of Lynx Africa in the same bag. A family with three teenagers, perhaps? Or just the one with perspiration issues and an irregular cleaning schedule?

The numerically minded might be able to recite concerning statistics cataloguing the huge amounts of waste thrown away each year. The origins of those neat numbers are here. It’s my job to determine the statistical profile of waste at this facility—this data will then be used in figuring out where to prioritise treatment options. I work in advanced waste treatment. Here, degradables are turned into compost, to be sent to council parks and used in land restoration for open-cut mines. Waste that doesn’t degrade goes to landfill, out of sight and mind. To many, this may sound like an unusually primitive way of tackling recycling. But dealing with waste remains one of the pre-eminent problems of our society for a reason: it’s hard. There is no magnet for plastics, glass or food that can easily separate everything that passes through here. Even the most waste-conscious among us have little idea what happens after trash gets sent through the black hole of our bins. Amongst this factory of conveyor belts and humming machines are ten other workers, stationed at key junctions. They make jokes and sing to themselves while adeptly removing errant items that have made it through the sorting process.

I find a box filled with stamps and letters that must be at least 20 years old. To throw out such personal items after so long could mean something serious—or nothing at all.

There’s a weird detachment that happens after a few hours of work. Objects are defined not in terms of their social use, but how they fit into the bins around me. I’m grateful to see bags filled with nappies, because they’re easy to sort. I’ve come to despise bread. My thick rubber gloves are rarely dexterous enough to tear into the plastic bag on the first try, and bread is always mouldy. There’s an honesty in reducing waste to a future utility. We work so hard to make things that look nice for the briefest of moments, but they all end up in a building like this. To be confronted with the cathedrals of refuse that are built here strips back the theatrical facade of our products. Every neatly arranged pile of fruits, boxes and bottles that you see lining kitchens and supermarkets are no more than a few weeks away from ending up here, repurposed into something ugly.

When I drive into work in the morning I see towering mounds of processed garbage: sorted, crushed, dried and tested to meet environmental standards. From a distance, everything is indistinguishable, each pile identical. By design, the repurposed waste—compost— must be homogenous, so as to avoid nasty surprises appearing in your local parks. But to be so involved in this process changed the way I think about waste. As I walk through the building, across the metal walkway that takes me to my work station, I witness the flow of rubbish in reverse, from finish to start. Picking up the first bag of the day reminds me that I work on an event horizon, where the products of people succumb to entropy and become a part of something bigger. Somewhere along the conveyor belt, the individual disappears.

After five weeks, when everything has been sorted, I will give my boss a piece of paper with a dozen percentages written on it. The sum of every family whose lives I’ve intruded upon, neatly abridged into a few cells in a spreadsheet. But to me, those statistics will represent one of the most interesting, grossest and insightful experiences I’ve ever had. Our personal connection to waste seems less apparent when all we hear are numbers. Every week when the garbage truck comes, we think we’re given a clean slate, but our waste lives on. It’s given new purpose in ways that few know about. What we throw away tells stories, long after we’re done telling them.