17 June 2016

Humble trash bag contains myriad decisions of design, usage, discard in the secret life cycle of things

weekly solid waste collection
The weekly collection of solid waste at the roadside of one’s house is a convenience that has been provided for more than 50 years. But there was a time before than when a person stoked a fire in an empty 55-gallon drum or “burn barrel” as we called them. People would burn their fallen leaves, and discarded kitchen scraps in a backyard pit, too. Houses with a fireplace might routinely feed newsprint and other paper and wood scraps, and later plastic, too, on the fire grate. But now each week we hear the sound of the compacting motor as it presses the bags of refuse into a solid mass that will be disgorged at the landfill site (or ‘long term storage solution’ as an acquaintance jokes, since little of it actually biodegrades in the layered environment starved of oxygen needed by bacteria to consume waste) about 18-20 miles distant.

Regarding the cycle of mass design, production, distribution, marketing, purchase, use, and eventual disposal, there are design decisions all along the way. First there is the invention, which is a solution to a perceived or existing problem. Materials must be created and capabilities tested to suit the uses in question. There may be a desire to offer a product at more than one price point, based on name or brand or materials or colors. Selling in multiple language markets must be taken into account as well. Then at the opposite end of the life cycle of a thing there comes a decision point when the owner must either discard, destroy, sell or give to another owner, or recycle if the materials have some reuse. By the time it appears in a bag at the side of the road, so many decisions over the thing have passed: from conceiving a product, executing a design, producing, distributing, marketing, maintaining, repairing or discarding in some manner. Thus the bag of rubbish at the side of the road is a sort of palimpsest with layers of human decisions in and on it.

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