This weekend I saw “Slumdog Millionaire.” It’s an amazing movie that’s often hard to watch but has a happy ending. However, what struck me the most was the trash. I mean the actual trash on the ground, the trash in the background and the enormous trash heaps. I loved that the film didn’t pause the storyline to talk about trash – the filmmakers wove it into fabric of the characters’ lives. One of the best examples was when the main character, a homeless orphan, talked to his brother as he filled a discarded plastic water bottle with tap water and resealed it for resale. The film treated this act just like brushing teeth, part of an everyday routine.
The visuals in “Slumdog” startled me because I thought I knew trash. In 1994, I spend a year in Asia as a college student and as an intern for a film about Vietnam. During that time, I often talked to people about trash because there was no place to put it. I would carry it around with me, and every so often I would ask someone what to do with it. Once in Nepal, when I was living with a family, I asked the father what I should do with some old candybar wrappers and fax papers. He authoritatively took these bits of wrappers and paper, walked to the other end of the house, opened the window and threw them across the Himalayas. I froze. I waited several weeks before asking the next person what to do with the various scraps of debris I had accumulated. Now, fifteen years later, the trash in “Slumdog” still caught me off guard. Maybe my memory of trash has faded, or maybe there’s actually visibly more trash.
Working on Green21, I’ve realized that our understanding of trash has evolved and become more systemic. We’ve gone from focusing on the visible symptoms of waste to looking at “lifecycles” as detailed in Cradle to Cradle. Now it seems we need to move beyond exploring waste management systems to trying to understand our need to consume. The Story of Stuff is a great place to start.