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  • Writer's pictureEmily Bach

Discarded Afterlives

On the life cycle of trash.

By Emily Bach

Lino Machado was eight years old when he threw a Coca-Cola bottle on the ground of his family’s farm in Puerto Rico. Living in the northern slope of the territory’s mountains, his grandfather, an early days environmentalist, watched him drop the bottle. “If you come back in fifty years,” he said, “that bottle is still going to be there, so I suggest you pick it up.”

His grandfather’s reminder transcended Puerto Rico’s mountains and echoes today in his work at Barnard. Now the Director of Facilities, Machado is a voice behind the college’s recycling posters and reuse programs. He describes them eloquently in an office of repurposed trash: formerly discarded desks, chairs, and tables he’s repaired in the year since he joined Barnard’s staff fill the room. His office looks brand new, a subtle testament to the persistence of his commitment to sustainability.

On the topic of trash, Machado hesitates to regard anything as truly disposable. Broken furniture can be fixed into stools for local school children. Paper plates can be composted. Even methane, the gas that radiates from landfills—trash’s final destination—can be repurposed into fuel. His work reflects this attitude, visible in Barnard’s carbon-neutral garbage trucks and state-of-the-art recycling facilities.

When Machado isn’t reminding students to put their recyclables in the correct bin, he habitually perches beneath the Low tent. He subtly transfers cans from trash to recycling bins in a ritual he understands to be part of his role as an educator. Perhaps his profession has strengthened this spirit: Unlike most of us, Machado confronts the long lifespan of trash on a daily basis. While students seek to disappear their refuse in the bins, Machado and sanitation workers can’t simply forget about trash. Instead, they follow it to garbage trucks, to collection sites, even to landfills in Ohio, where Barnard’s waste eventually settles.

Few bear witness to the lifespan of trash, but those who do tend to maintain a deep connection. Severin Fowles, an archaeologist and Barnard Anthropology professor, wrestles with waste for a living. “This is our primary point of access to ancient societies—we study the world through what people have left behind,” he explained. There’s a subtle intimacy to his profession: How would we feel if our trash were put on display? What if, instead of transferring their cans from one bin to another, students kept those cans with them for others to see? What if we did that with all waste?

Fowles chose to materialize this thought experiment in what he affectionately dubbed “trash week,” he tasked 24 students with carrying around their (nonperishable) waste for seven days. Trash bags became our guests at recitals and dance rehearsals, art exhibits and parties. One went to the opera, another to the MET. They studied with us in historic libraries, made a few sales associates reasonably uncomfortable, and sat leisurely at restaurant tables.

As the week progressed, the expanding trash bags roused increasing attention and discomfort. Groundskeepers and waitresses alike repeatedly asked to “take them off our hands,” or other niceties aimed at tidying up spaces offended by the bags. Sitting with the refuse proved to be an enduring and inconvenient reminder of all that we consume and conceal.

“Carrying this sheer quantity of waste around with me for a week really forced me to reckon with the ways in which our lives, as college students, as New Yorkers, as pandemic-dwellers, are dependent upon a lifestyle where so much trash is produced,” said Grace Stone, BC ’22. It also demonstrated what would happen in the absence of the vast infrastructure that sends our waste away, allowing us to forget about it.

Illustration by Rosaline Qi

In a culminating project, Fowles instructed the students to lay their weekly trash out to be photographed before the class. The task proved more invasive than most had expected. As Fowles had predicted, large parts of our lifestyles and values, we realized, could be revealed through what we discarded.

Joint ends echoed the rumble of a weekend party. A baggage claim slip professed long-distance love. Grocery receipts animated a picnic in a park, complete with a charcuterie board and lemonade. Pencil shavings recollected a drawing of a girl, now taped to a bedroom wall.

There was something beautiful about the care with which we laid out the detritus of our lives. Still, there endured a shame about the project, reminiscent of how easy it had been to dispose of these moments. Draped with trash, the room echoed the landfills where often-invisible workers would so quickly have whisked the waste away, had we not guarded our bags.

It is tempting to wash our hands of responsibility for the afterlives of our lifestyles, easy to say a paper plate is a paper plate is a paper plate, gone as soon as it leaves my sight. Even after completing the project, this was our collective impulse: to quickly dump the bags in the nearest bins. We couldn’t sit with all of our trash forever, we thought.

But someone has to. The weight of our consumption endures, unimaginably heavy on the backs of both the people who dispose of our refuse and to the land where it ultimately rests. The land, piled and polluted, will remember all the weight that we choose to forget.

However, sometimes, serendipitously, land allows us to reclaim these memories. Machado recounted a walk he took with his sons through Puerto Rico’s mountains, passing through the farmland where he grew up. There, his youngest son pointed to the ground and said, “Hey Pa, look at this old Coke bottle.” He remembered that day, decades before, and the bottle he’d never picked up.“If you come back here in fifty years,” his grandfather said, now decades ago, “that bottle will still be here.” And, just as he predicted, it was.

Machado told the story to his son. “If we leave it here, do you think when my kids come through here, it will still be here?” His son asked. “No,” Machado responded. They recycled the bottle that day.

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