What Can We Learn From Pictures of People and Their Trash?

A photography project meets public service campaign aims to raise awareness about what we throw in the trash in just one week

Over one week Monica McCrary and Mike Rao of San Francisco, California, and their kids Jared Rao, 13, and Braeden Rao, 10, accumulated 30.4 pounds of garbage—2.1 pounds ended up in a landfill, while 28.3 pounds were recyclable or compostable. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
Lisa and Phil Burnham of San Francisco, California, are pictured with their children, Tristan, 15, and Elouise, 10. At the end of the week, they had 33 pounds of household waste—3.7 pounds destined for landfill and 25.3 destined for a recycling plant or compost. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
Phoenix, Arizona, residents Jana and Kelly Anderson pose with their kids Kayla, 16, and Evan, 14. After one week, their household waste totaled 38.9 pounds—27.6 pounds of landfill waste and 11.3 pounds of recyclable waste. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
In Atlanta, Georgia, Bonnie and George Cooke and their children Kyle, 16, and Tristan, 18, accumulated 61 pounds of waste over a week—34 pounds went to the landfill, while 27 pounds were recyclables and food scraps. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
Esther and Viliulfo Zepeda of Phoenix, Arizona, pose with their daughters, Amy, 15, and Jessica, 18. For one week, the Zepeda family's total household waste was 36.3 pounds—28.9 pounds went to a landfill and 7.4 pounds were recycled. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
Jacqueline and Kenneth Griffin Jr. live in Atlanta, Georgia, with their two kids, Kenneth “Tre” Griffin III, 9, and Antonio, 7. Over the course of a week, they produced 41.1 pounds of household waste—31 pounds of landfill garbage and 10.1 pounds of recyclables. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
Residents of New York City, Yuliya Radchenko and Walid Halabi pose with their two sons, Zacharia, 7, and Khalid, 11. For the week, they threw out 21 pounds of trash—10.9 pounds went to a landfill and 10.1 pounds went to recycling. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
Amid their household waste for the week, Charlene Wimms and Donell Brant of New York City are picture withe their children, Darius Brant, 9, and Terrard Wimms, 16. Their total for the week was 28.9 pounds—22.9 pounds in landfill and 6 pounds in recyclables. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio

Individual Americans throw away 4.38 pounds of trash each day, and in 2012 the country as a whole generated 251 million tons of waste.

That's a lot of trash.

Not all of it to goes to a landfill, though. About 34 percent gets recycled or composted (that’s about 1.51 pounds of each person’s daily contribution). But, the waste that does end up in a landfill contributes to our greenhouse gas emissions in a big way. Most of the greenhouse gases we produce come from burning fossil fuels, but landfills pumped 17.5 percent of the total methane emitted by humans in the United States in 2013 (and food waste is perhaps the worst offender globally).

A new photo project called “Waste in Focus” aims to raise awareness about the giant-landfill-sized issue of waste in the United States. Sponsored by Glad and launching this week, the photo-series-meets-public-service campaign by husband-and-wife creative team Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio examines what ends up in the trashcan, recycling bin and compost heap of eight average American families over one week.

Menzel, an established photojournalist, and D’Aluisio, a writer and producer, have focused on consumption in their previous work. Their last book project, “What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets,” featured portraits of people with the food they ate over the course of a day. On the condition that they would have total independence with the project, Peter and Faith teamed up to look at the opposite side of consumer culture: what people throw away.

First they zeroed in on four U.S. cities: San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix and New York City. Within each city, they interviewed families looking for the same general criteria: two kids between the ages of 7 and 18, and middle class in income -- not rich, but not poor either. They selected two families in each city and gave them strict instructions to keep to their regular routine to ensure the snapshot’s realism. “One of the challenges when you set something like this up is to make sure that the families are not going to try to be model recylcers,” says Menzel. “We asked them not to change their behavior.”

Their next challenge: how to make trash look aesthetically pleasing. Each family collected its weekly trash, recycling, and compost in bins, and at the end of the week the team went in and sorted, cleaned and weighed everything. For the family portraits, they neatly suspended the trash on clothes racks, using bird netting and velcro. In every image, recycled or composted items were separated on the left, and waste destined for a landfill was secured on the right. The images are also accompanied by the data on trash weight, where the trash went (landfill, recycling plant, or composter) and a little backstory on the family and the local waste disposal regulations.


Cooke Family Waste Data
Menzel and D'Aluisio collected waste data on each family they photographed and breakdowns, like the one above for the Cooke family in Atlanta, accompany each image, along with local waste management rules. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio

“There are a lot of surprises when you look at these pictures and compare one to the other, but it’s not really about comparing families as to which was the better recycler or which is the more environmental family,” says Menzel.

Every family followed the rules of their city or municipality, but some cities are ahead of the curve in terms of waste regulations. Menzel and D’Aluisio visited local recycling facilities to figure out how everything worked, and he points to San Francisco as a stand out. The city diverts 80 percent of its waste toward recycling and compost. Unsurprisingly, the two San Francisco families sent only 7 and 11 percent of their household waste to the local landfill.

But rather than conveying a soapbox message that people should just recycle more, Menzel and D’Aluisio hoped to simply present information, allowing the viewer draw their own conclusions. “You can’t really preach to people and tell them what to do,” says Menzel. “But, you can show them in a non-polemical way what is better for their city, for their environment, for the planet.”

Photos and data from the project can be viewed on the Waste in Focus website, and a photo exhibit will be on view in New York’s Union Square on Earth Day, April 22, 2014.

Editor's Note, April 15, 2014: This story has been clarified to indicate that Menzel and D'Aluisio used bird netting, not fish nets on the clothes racks.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.