Finding Earth Religion in the Trash
Eight weeks ago I threw out my last bag of personal trash. Granted, in the time since then, my cats have produced about one bag of used cat litter every two weeks, but let’s keep it real: making any sort of dramatic change like zeroing out our waste production is going to take a lot of time.
I started this journey two or three years ago, inspired by short documentary video clips about other people who managed to get their trash production down to the contents of a small glass jar. The more I read not only about the islands of garbage in our world’s oceans but also about the emerging problem of where U.S. recycling is actually going, the more apparent it became that our waste is not only an urgent problem but one we can address both through individual consumer and policy-level actions.
My first summer I focused on two pathways. The first was to confront all the trash I produced and get comfortable with seeing it. For the first week, I placed every piece of trash I would have thrown away on the kitchen counter instead. I let it get overwhelming. I let myself stare at it, imagine with it, whenever I went in the kitchen to cook. Could I repurpose it? Could I find an alternative to it at the store? Could I make art out of it somehow?
My second pathway was to actually apply this exercise. I started changing the way I thought of the food and other goods I purchased. We’ve become so oblivious to our trash that when we see something at the grocery store, we only see the food element that we’ll eventually consume. We don’t see the packaging, the wrapper, the leftover components that we’ll discard.
I didn’t get far my first year. I reduced where I could and attached the rest of my trash to a large canvas painting. By the end of the summer, the canvas was full and it stunk. I wasn’t sure I’d really produced art out of it at all. In fact I felt pretty defeated. I put the canvas in a garbage bag in my closet and went back to trash-as-usual by the autumn.
Last year was better. Having adopted a plant-based vegan diet in the interim, started growing my own food, and gotten serious about composting and beginning relationships with local farmers, there was a significant reduction in the volume of my trash by cutting out food-related packaging. What I did produce I added to the bag with the canvas from the year before.
Then one night in July, I sat down with a friend and we cut the canvas into pieces. She’d seen something called ‘eco-bricks’ online and I was the only person she knew with enough saved up trash to match her collection of single-use plastic bottles. All-in-all we assembled forty-something of them. In the end, we attached them together with duct tape, painted them, and installed them in her backyard as the barrier of a pond feature for her garden.
I took the eco-brick idea and ran with it this year. Since April, all the plastic and other waste I haven’t been able to either compost or remove from my consumption patterns has been used to fill reclaimed plastic bottles. While I don’t have immediate plans for the eco-bricks I’m creating, I’m confident that one will appear eventually, and I’m comfortable holding onto them until that point.
The Religion of Trash
In the time I’ve spent working with my trash these last few years, it’s become evident to me that this isn’t just a consumer issue in the sense of what we choose to buy, nor is it a producer issue in the sense of what options companies produce for us to choose from to buy. It’s a psychological issue. It’s a spiritual issue.
Since I started this challenge again, I’ve been intrigued by the faces people make when I find them looking for a trash can in my house. First there is excitement upon hearing a new environmentalist thing they haven’t really considered before. Next there is shame. Their shoulders lower, their imaginations tell them it must be so difficult. They hide their piece of trash in their hand, in their pocket, or behind their body somehow. Even without judgment from an outside source, we judge ourselves for not being green or perfect enough.
On some level we crave innovation. At the same time we are made to feel so powerless and so ashamed, that we often seem to prefer inaction rather than engagement with the innovation we encounter. Trash is personal like that. When approached as an art form, it’s the most intimate medium I know. Even when you go to very physical arts involving the body or our sexualities, culture, food, fashion—we’re still consciously curating something the whole way through. We’re in an intentional conversation with our parents, religion, society, our oppressors, whoever.
With trash, we are rarely in this sort of dialogue. We are discarding. We are burying. We are throwing away. Trash is a record of all that we consume. Trash tells us everything about the most un-acknowledged parts of ourselves. In this context, I think we attach a lot of shame to it.
More than this shame, trash is a kind of religion. Our weekly garbage-pickup is a kind of ritual, while our garbage workers are a sort of priesthood. Many ancient pagan cultures revered the Earth as a deity or collective of supernatural intelligences. Now, we keep Earth out of sight except in very controlled doses. Our relationship to Her today is one where we are constantly making sacrifices back to Her, but these are sacrifices we are ashamed to even face head on. These are sacrifices that are toxic to life on this planet. Trash is one of the most widespread, ritualistic relationships we have with Earth today. Is it the relationship we want?
At times, I’ve fancied my spiritual practices to be a sort of ‘conscious’ or ‘Earth-based’ spirituality. For more than a decade, I’ve been comfortable with addressing the Earth as an abstract spiritual force like ‘Mother Earth.’ On a more microcosmic level, I’ve found both ‘Her’ and some sense of spiritual or animistic connectivity with individual trees I count among my friends, with the birds, the bees, and so much wildlife. But my zero waste journey has really got me considering how much of that is just feel-good bullshit on my part that’s been ignoring the very tangible, measurable relationship I have to the planet through my trash.
Like many religious commitments, aiming for zero waste presents its challenges. And like any religious conversion, we don’t become experts or perfect practitioners overnight. Still, if I am to profess any sort of ecological quality to my faith—which I desire to do—this relationship is one which I can no longer ignore.
If we are to address the human waste problem, it will certainly involve changes to our economy and home consumer habits. Earth, however, is not just a macro- or micro-economy. There is a transpersonal relationship to the Earth which must be acknowledged and changed in this process as well. I hope everyone who shares a sense of fellowship with this planet or even with just a very special ecosystem or tree will consider joining me in working on our relationship to trash as well.
Deepening Resilience began as a community blog project with a set of prompts anyone can submit to, but I’ve decided to add to my contributions here through additional posts on related subjects. You can read past posts in this category here, and even join the project’s Facebook group page here.
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Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.
Get connected with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org