Watching My Waste (May 2011)

The theater we make uses ecology as inspiration.  But what does this mean, exactly? We’re about to present URANUS (a play about waste) to the public June 7-11.  The story, staging and design of URANUS are inspired by the greater theme of waste: waste of the human experience, such as deferred dreams, expatriation, abandonment, progress; but also, of course, waste that affects the environment: garbage, landfills, and human excrement.

To better examine why this theme is important, I participated in an experiment—a pledge I made for Earth Month—to produce no inorganic waste for 30 days*.  That means I wasn’t allowed to consume anything that was intentionally produced to be disposable, and then see how it effected my days and my mind.  I’d like to give you a taste of what this experience was like.

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Pretend I don’t have to work today.  I’m in Manhattan, taking a walk.  In a few hours I’ll be at the theater, to see a play by one of my favorite off-Broadway companies.  But right now I’m just walking down the street.

It’s turned into a lovely day, weather-wise.  The sky has cleared, the air smells fresh, and I feel lighter, even though my backpack is more full, with the addition of my reusable containers, bags, utensils and unpackaged snacks.  Somehow, knowing that I have temporarily disconnected myself from a system that often feels unavoidable, I feel empowered.

Removing something as ubiquitous as garbage from one’s life makes one incredibly conscious of the garbage that other people are producing.  It’s the experience of seeing the world for the first time, with new super laser eyes.  So as I walk down the street, my new super laser eyes involuntarily zoom in on the black plastic heaps on curbsides, the overflowing trashcans on corners, the bits of litter strewn about by wind or the careless.  The two things I observe most profoundly: how much literal space all this garbage takes up just on one block, and how many passersby seem totally oblivious to it’s presence.  Would we perhaps pay more attention if we were made to put garbage in clear bags, our rotting detritus naked and incredibly visible?

I enter the Union Square Green Market.  It’s spring, so there are lots of leafy greens, members of the onion family, root vegetables and apples from the fall harvest, milk in returnable glass bottles, naked bread, etc.  There are bags and cartons being doled out en masse, but luckily I brought my own (small canvas totes, Tupperware for eggs and cheese, plastic produce bags from housemates’ grocery trips), and my methods are very welcome here because it saves the farmers money.

A trip to the Farmers Market isn’t a breeze; it requires planning, you’re limited to whatever’s in season, and it’s more expensive.  But it’s the healthiest, freshest, most local (therefore low-impact) way to eat, and—most pertinent to my experiment—the only source of groceries in which almost nothing is besieged by packaging, so I adjust my diet and budget to make it work.

The food I buy at the market will be my breakfast and dinner for the next few days, but it needs to be prepared, so I’m eating a late lunch out.

On the sidewalk, I wade through hundreds of cigarette butts (when did it become so acceptable and commonplace to throw these little devils on the ground?!), hundreds of free daily newspapers, and several people trying to force fliers upon me: discounts on shoes, Japanese lunch specials, comedy clubs... most of the fliers, I notice, end up on the ground a few blocks down or in the trashcan on the corner.  My super laser eyes next zoom in on the hordes of broken umbrellas strewn about.  We had a burst of heavy rain earlier today, and I’ll bet plenty of the parasols I see were purchased from a street seller only minutes before being turned inside out, snapping a limb, or being forgotten outside a doorway.  I wear a raincoat with a hood, to prevent potential umbrella death.

Scouting an eatery that will forgo their usual procedures and let me use my Tupperware and fork (in the case of messy food) or bare hand (in the case of a pizza slice) is tricky, but not impossible.  No napkin is easy; I merely decline and use the towel I brought from home.  As I eat, I watch the other customers, most of them surrounded by paper napkins, disposable cups, Styrofoam take-out boxes, plastic bags, plastic forks, plastic straws, leftover food—all of which I cannot use, all of which gets tossed in the trash and carted around the city in a giant truck before it is transported to a Pennsylvania landfill and entombed for hundreds of years.  The event of eating lasted ten minutes.

I wonder how many New Yorkers consider life in a garbage bag.  Anything that decomposes still needs oxygen to decompose, and without it—say, if it’s tucked inside a thick black plastic bag and compressed into the depths of a landfill—even the most perishable items can sit for hundreds of years.

Back on the street.  A garbage truck passes me, one of hundreds that drive through the five boroughs of NYC 24 hours a day.  It runs 3 miles to the gallon, produces the most greenhouse gas emissions of any vehicle save tractor-trailers, and headquarters in poor Bronx & Brooklyn areas, bestowing kids in those neighborhoods with the highest asthma rates in the city.  But without the trucks, those black plastic heaps would just keep heaping.

I’m meeting a friend for tea before the show.  I use my reusable hot/cold bottle, which thankfully is accepted without question at most cafés, and shake it to stir in honey and milk.  The tea bag I can compost (the Lower East Ecology Center has a stand at the Green Market where you can drop off food scraps), and if there are no communal bottles of honey and milk, I drink it bitter.  I want a cookie, but that typically means a square of wax paper (used in handling), a napkin to go under the cookie, sometimes a paper plate under the napkin, or a paper bag if it’s To Go.  So I explain my experiment to the barista, who may or may not comply with my request for a bare-hand exchange, which means I may or may not eat a cookie.  My friend has no such rules; she consumes the coffee and the cookie and all the disposables that come with them.  As we sip our beverages, I am nagged with feelings of guilt and self-righteousness, internally tainting my pleasant visit.  After the play, we might have a beer, which may or may not come in a bottle or plastic cup, and include a cocktail napkin, and these feelings might return.  But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to.

My friend and I arrive at the theater, we pick up our paper tickets (unavoidable) and are handed thick glossy paper programs with paper insets (not unavoidable, but I collect programs, and have no intention of throwing it away).  The play is magnificent, but my super laser eyes can’t help zooming in on all things disposable: the scripts printed, script revisions printed (it’s a new show with a big cast) and wooden design materials (no doubt all coming from virgin arboreal forests), the bottled waters and wrapped candy bars in the green room, the packaged snacks and plastic wine glasses at the intermission bar, the paper towels in the bathroom, the throw-away pens, the foam and plastic and cloth and plexiglass used in the set, the spike tape…  When I consider the Broadway equivalent of this modest Off-Broadway production, I get a bit dizzy.

On my way home, I need to renew my 30-day Metrocard.  The machine dispenses a new card; it won’t let me refill my old one.  Machines do not negotiate with social experiments.  I have no other choice but to throw it away.

It’s been a good day, but the empowerment I felt earlier has faded a bit.  I feel small, and I wonder truly what will become of our livable land (when landfills overcrowd), our water (when toxic chemicals in landfills continue leaching into the ground) and air (when unwanted gases continue to be released via the decomposing process) if we continue recklessly consuming and discarding at such a magnitude.

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Now that my experiment has ended, I am left with a few resolutions (certain practices I want to continue, lessons I’d like to spread), but mostly questions: As Superhero Clubhouse moves forward toward what we hope will be a promising future, how will we retain our past policies? Can ideals be reduced, reused and recycled? Can words and movement?  Can theater lead the way in a crusade to make the arts less wasteful, when by nature a theatrical event is fleeting and inefficient?  Can theater makers from the get-go (starting with playwrights and ending with audience) more profoundly consider all the stuff they plan to use?

And, quite simply: what are we, the people of Earth, going to do about all this waste?

*Exceptions to my “no waste” rule: tea bags (which I composted), toilet paper (which I reduced), items bought by friends and shared with me and the groceries that were already in my apartment before I made my pledge (all of which I declared more wasteful not to use), and what I considered the “nearly-unavoidables”: receipts, stickers on fruits/veggies, gifts and cards sent by relatives, bills, deposit slips, checks, toiletries and tickets.  All exceptions (and any mishaps) I collected, in order to display as a collage at our performances. 

PS- The other members of our Special Task Force (SHC’s core company) also made 30-day waste-related pledges, each unique and inspiring.  You can read about their adventures on our Facebook page (and Like us, while you’re at it!).