Treasured Trash

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The year 2020 has indeed been trashy. Almost everyone’s plans have been trashed by COVID-19. The lockdown of restaurants for onsite dining was partially solved by converting to takeout service, but this led to a proliferation of boxes and bags, many of which cannot be recycled. Over the last decades, hills of trash have grown throughout the world – author Louis Alberto Urrea graphically describes the phenomenon in Mexico – and the situation has been aggravated this year by the COVID crisis and its accompanying lockdown of people in their homes, where they receive home delivery in bags.

Trash, for most of us, consists of items and materials we consider to have no value. In fact, we actually pay for tons of trash to be removed from our homes. Even if we are ardent proponents of recycling, we convert only a small amount into compost for our gardens, and the rest we carefully sort into bins for plastic, metal, paper, and glass. We rarely think about where those who are hired to remove the assorted bags actually haul them, and what happens next.

But for some people, our discards may have considerable value. Who has not noticed the omnipresent trash-pickers or dumpster-divers in urban areas around the world, including U.S. and Mexican cities. Some of them are hungry individuals who exist on a diet of food tossed away by markets and restaurants. For them, trashed, slightly-bruised or over-ripe fruit that would be rejected by regular shoppers is a great find. If they discover sandwiches or baked goods that were dumped for exceeding their expiration date, it is as if they have found gold.

But hungry individual trash pickers are only the tip of a whole underground trash industry. Many of the people you see diving into dumpsters or surveying city dumps are long-time professionals who earn subsistence wages by knowing where and to whom they can sell specific trashed items such bike parts, motorcycle parts, electrical components, clothes, and glass bottles, not to mention items that display a deposit-back label.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish impoverished trash-pickers from artists hunting for the perfect tossed item for their collages, found-art pieces, or installations. Some works of art worth tens of thousands of pesos are hard to distinguish from a trash pile – unless of course you happen to encounter the artwork in a gallery or museum. During a music and art weekend festival at a university, an acclaimed contemporary artist who will remain nameless had displayed his masterpieces around the campus. Early Monday morning after the festival, the janitorial staff hauled away the trash left after the Sunday night jazz concert, including the masterpieces that they assumed were piles of junk.

Do you think this was a mistake of the uneducated? The next time you head for one of the plethora of contemporary art galleries or museums in Mexico, for example Museo del Objeto in the Roma section of Mexico City, imagine how you would regard some of the displayed works of art if you found them abandoned on a city street.

Among those who collect and resell items from trash piles are those who reap relatively high amounts of money for items that are marketed as vintage, “retro,” or collectible. Flea markets in cities all over the world are outdoor environments for selling and buying treasured clothes, shoes, accessories, bric-a-brac, old kitchen and dining ware, used books, vinyl records, crafts, and artwork of dubious vintage. One person’s trash is another’s must-have item. While spending a winter in Buenos Aires, in one of the enormous Sunday flea markets I found a black shawl shot with gold and elaborated with long silky fringes; it turns a simple black dress into ageless elegance. Even now I can almost hear the sounds of a tango whenever I wrap this shawl around my shoulders. At that same flea market, friends visiting from Mexico filled bags with objects that were common in Argentina but exotic gifts for friends in Guanajuato.

Some stores also provide venues for shopping for other people’s throw-aways. While used clothing stores may be déclassé, vintage clothes stores are definitely sought after by young women seeking a certain look. The piles of old vinyl records and old comic books that filled closets and attics and used to be tossed when parents grew old can now be found in specialty stores. And some dishes and glasses that grandma discarded can be delivered to an antique store where they sell for a pretty penny.

One doesn’t need to visit flea markets to paw through mounds of other people’s castoffs to find the perfect whatever. The internet has created international online flea markets such as Craigslist and eBay, both operating in Mexico. The prices for stuff people want to offload can be minimal, but some are high when marketed by someone who is savvy and sells online for a commission.

A ballgown I wore once and would never have the occasion to wear again was sold on eBay by such a savvy entrepreneur, and even after she took her cut I received twice as much as I paid for the dress. Several neighbors who have more money than they can spend in their lifetime buy old cars for fortunes from people who rescue them from junk yards, and then they spend time or money to restore them to their previous shining glory.

Archeologists often spend large portions of their careers sifting through ancient garbage. Last March in the Yucatán, a cave containing more than 150 objects that hadn’t been unearthed for over 1000 years was discovered in the pre-Columbian Mayan city of Chichen Itza. By studying this veritable treasure of Mayan detritus, the archeologists hope to rewrite the whole history of these inhabitants.

We are fortunate enough to have truly creative people around the world reworking the essence of trash and demonstrating that “worthless” trash can be turned into treasured items. In New York City, two artists made a matching gown and tuxedo out of used masks and paraded around town all day displaying their “wear.” We were delighted, when visiting a bookstore in San Cristóbal in Chiapas, to receive our purchases in a beautiful yellow and white patterned bag – washable and practically indestructible – woven out of trashed plastic grocery bags. One kibbutz we visited in the Negev of Israel has no concept of trash – everything left over by kibbutz members, including human waste, is recycled and reused. If you are interested in pursuing this idea further, the website Pinterest.com has hundreds of creative recycling ideas submitted by people from around the globe.

Hopefully, we will emerge from this pandemic with the realization that we are reaping what we sow. By sowing mountains of refuse, we are literally trashing the world. But by creatively treasuring trash, we can save the globe.

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