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Podcast: What Our Garbage Can Teach Us

In this episode of Generation Anthropocene, tracking trash and why there’s so much garbage on the moon.

(Eva Rinaldi - Creative Commons BY-SA)
smithsonian.com

Trash. Garbage. Refuse. Waste. Call it whatever you like, this is the stuff we deal with every day that we no longer want in our lives. And apart from remembering when to drag out the bins to the curb, our trash mostly stays out of sight and out of mind.

In a global society that seems increasingly interested in knowing where products come from, our trash remains largely invisible to us. But what happens when we don’t look away and decide to follow our trash around?

This week, Generation Anthropocene travels the world and beyond in search of the things we throw away to see where it goes, what happens to it, and what our garbage says about who we are as a species. Producer Miles Traer reports on three different stories, each one revealing something different about our trash removal chains.

Traer begins with Isolde Honore, a Fellow at the Odd Salon lecture series in San Francisco, who relates the story of a group of rubber ducks that traveled the oceans following an accident on board a container ship. As the ducks began washing up on shore, a team of researchers, including oceanographer Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, leapt into action and used the rubber ducks to track global ocean currents.

“Ebbesmeyer pioneered a field called ‘forensic flotsamology,’ also known as ‘flotsametrics’ – this idea that you could study the ocean based on the manmade things that are washing up ashore,” said Honore. And as the ducks kept making landfall over the years, a new picture of  our oceans began to emerge.

Next, Traer speaks with David Lee, a member of the MIT Trash Track program. Lee and the Trash Track team found a way to attach GPS sensors to all of the things that we throw away, including recyclables and electronic waste. The city of Seattle, Washington agreed to let them test the program, and soon after, the team started to map out the travel paths of our waste streams.

“From our data, the recyclable removal chain is pretty much what you’d expect,” Lee said. “But the removal chain for e-waste or hazardous waste – these were the most surprising. These things traveled much farther than we had expected and for a lot longer time than we had expected.”

Finally, Traer speaks with Dakin Hart, curator at the Noguchi Museum in New York City and creator of the website titled “Trash on the Moon.” Hart walks Traer through the incredible, and incredibly odd, objects humans left behind on the surface of the moon. And it’s not just the objects that interest Hart; It’s the way the astronauts handled these things as well that paints a revealing portrait of humanity on the surface of another world.

“Every piece of trash on the moon is a testament to human ingenuity, and human passion, and determination,” Hart said. “What is amazing about [the trash] is that it covers the whole range of human activity, the sacred and the profane… It expresses our highest ideals, and then our most sophomoric, idiotic small-mindedness at the same time.”

Join along with Traer and the Generation Anthropocene team as they investigate No Ordinary Garbage.

Related podcasts by Generation Anthropocene:

All About Rare Earth Elements, The 'Vitamins' of Modern Society

Creating an Equation for Cities May Solve Ecological Conundrums

How a Farming Project in Brazil Turned Into a Social and Ecological Tragedy

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