There’s a funny line in the classic Woody Allen film Annie Hall when some guy starts bashing New York City for being really dirty, and Allen’s character Alvy responds with feigned surprise, “I’m into garbage. It’s my thing.” The first time hubby Jason heard this line, he roared with laughter and insisted on replaying the scene multiple times. Then he imitated Allen’s New York accent perfectly, and continues to pull out this one-liner on occasion, which always makes me crack up.
The really funny thing, though, is that I feel a bit like a real-life, non-sarcastic Alvy these days. I am into garbage, and it is my thing. If you entered my house, you’d spot books with titles like “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.” My Zero Waste quest has put me on a path of total obsession with garbage – and how to make it stop existing, if possible.
One of my latest discoveries is an incredible documentary called “Wasteland.” The film highlights the very strange and unlikely relationship between two seemingly paradoxical things – art and garbage. It follows Brazilian artist Vik Muniz as he embarks on an art project in a huge landfill site just outside of Rio de Janeiro that receives 70 percent of the city’s garbage.
The camera shots are breathtaking in a horrifying way. The landfill, called Jardim Gramacho (Gramacho Gardens), swarms with human pickers, known as catadores, who pick through the endless dump truck-loads of urban trash in order to find recyclable items that are then sold back to manufacturers at whatever the day’s prices are. It’s like a stock exchange, the pickers competing wildly for the most valuable items of the day.
The artist Muniz takes beautiful photographs of the artists, and then does something spectacular with them – blowing up the black-and-white images to gargantuan size using a projector on the floor and employing the catadores to use garbage to recreate the images. I can’t do justice to the images he creates, which end up being sold in Europe for a high price, all of which goes back to the catadores. You should really just watch the film. Here’s the trailer:
While much of it is about art, the film is also about the disturbing quantity of garbage that continuously flows into Jardim Gramacho. It was sickening to watch. Dirty Barbie dolls, folders of old X-rays, broken flip-flops, old CDs, perfectly decent books, plastic bags – all of these normal, household things are dumped in a tremendous avalanche of trash out of each dump truck, and the catadores climb right up on this mountain to start sorting before it has all hit the ground. The trucks continue to dump all day long, and then throughout the night. Even the catadores pick out recycling with flashlights.
There is something so very wrong with these images, and yet they’re not much different anywhere else in the world. We don’t have catadores in Canada, but we have recycling facilities that do the same job. The bigger point, though, is that we humans, for some twisted reason, feel entitled to create excessive, disgusting, horrifically unsustainable amounts of garbage because we’re addicted to waste. We’re hooked on buying disposable products with plastic packaging. In the past few decades, we’ve managed to override the basic human instinct of thriftiness and replace it with a sense of entitlement toward constant change, revolving items, seasonal trends. It’s unsustainable – and it’s really sickening when you see landfills like Jardim Gramacho where it all ends up.
“Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history… It must be further nurtured even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift.” — J. Gordon Lippincott, 1947
The world needs a lot more people “really into garbage” before this is going to change.