My fascination with trash, explained
“What is it about garbage that gets you so riled up?” Jillian asked. She is one of my dearest friends and was sipping a chai at one of the best coffee houses in Singapore–Kith Cafe–when this question came up. We’d spent a few days in Indonesia and while I waded through a muddy river she quickly snapped this photo and it got her wondering about my strange interest. “Have you ever written about this?” she asked. “I think it’s worth explaining.”
Here is what I can tell you. My earliest memory is of combing the playground during kindergarten, my open lunch box dangling from one hand while I looked for trash. This had become a ritual. After lunch every day, I’d walk across the sandy playground looking for anything I could find–hair bands, red plastic Handi Snacks sticks or discarded gum wrappers. How could someone throw these things away? Surely there was some use for them. This was at a time when I didn’t understand what garbage meant. I didn’t understand that things were meant to be discarded and never used again. If something was useful once, how could it suddenly lose all its value once it was placed in a bin?
After weeks of coming home with lunch boxes full of trash, my mom, who is an abstract artist, was at her wit’s end. Nothing she said could convince me to stop filling up my empty lunchbox with garbage. In an attempt to do something productive with the mounds of refuse I’d brought home, she took me into her art studio and showed me how I could use the garbage to create a collage.
She laid out a large rectangle of turquoise carboard and showed me how to arrange the pieces so they “made sense.” How to place things in the middle and work outward so that a jaggedy circle of trash nearly reached the sides. We glued everything down and I loved it; it was a colorful mix of paper clips, rubber bands, gum wrappers, bottle caps and ribbon. Creating that collage remains one of my fondest memories. In the end, I stopped collecting trash and became like all the other kids who’d throw their trash away and spend the rest of their lunch playing outside.
But my mom’s plan didn’t deter me. If anything, it simply reaffirmed my belief that nothing is truly garbage. That everything has a purpose and can somehow be reused. Garbage doesn’t exist in nature and the fact that it’s something we’ve created leads me to believe it’s something we can also, ultimately, undo.