Three-quarters of a ton. That’s the average amount of waste each American throws out each year. That’s each American – every man, woman and child regardless of age – and that doesn’t include what is recycled. America is the #1 trash-producing country in the world, with our 5% of the world’s population producing 40% of the world’s waste. At least a third of that waste is packaging material, another third is food and organic waste and the remaining part is made up of things we simply no longer want to keep: everything from bicycles to computers to mattresses to toys.
I was witness to this waste stream in Seattle when I asked the City if I could spend some time in one of their solid waste transfer stations. Over a period of three weeks I spent many hours watching and photographing as ton after ton of waste was dumped by garbage trucks, private haulers and ordinary citizens. I was struck by both the casualness with which most people discard things and efficiency of our waste disposal system. As soon as loads were dumped, giant bulldozers moved in to crush and shove the piles away in order to make room for the next loads. In most cases I had no more than a few seconds to shoot a scene before it disappeared forever.
As I learned to quickly scan what was being dumped, I found a subconsciously zeroed in what I came to call the castaways of humanity – the immediately recognizable articles among the constantly changing mass of plastic bags, food waste, dirt, grease and other detritus. It was depressing to see how many seemingly still-useable pieces of furniture, appliances, equipment, tools, sporting goods, playthings, clothes and other household items were thrown away, seemingly without a second thought. Not once did I see anyone hesitate or reconsider what they were doing – their once valuable goods were now nothing but garbage.
As a consumer I am very much a part of this cycle. But until I took these photographs I didn’t realize how much all of us are a part of our throw-away society. We buy, we use, we discard, we buy again. It’s almost impossible to break this loop. I took these photographs to make us think about our decisions about what we buy and what we throw away. There’s a fine line between stuff and junk, and each of us is responsible for deciding when one becomes the other.