CP: How did your fellow trash carriers respond to the experience?

TV: Many of them had very similar experiences to mine. They found that it was harder than they expected it to be because, again, it really forced you to think about what you were putting in that bag if you were going to be carrying it around. Some people did it for three days, some people did it for a week. There were some folks that actually did it like me for two weeks. And it’s just so easy to toss things away and a lot of the fellow participants remarked as I did during that two weeks that food was the really big thing that you had to think about. For people in apartments who didn’t have the option of composting, that became a real problem. You know, you have an apple core and you’ve got a composter--no problem. If you don’t, it’s is going to start stinking in three or four days. Then you have to start thinking about packaging. I ended up buying a roasted chicken and it came in a huge plastic container. I’m lucky in that the city that I live in has a pretty good recycling program. I could throw that away, but it had a black plastic tray to it and a listener up in the bay area said her recycling program doesn’t allow her to recycle anything black. So you get these different experiences all over the country for the most part because there are different systems everywhere in terms of what you can put in trash, what you can put in recycling. In the Bay Area, they actually have a bin that you can put your food waste in. So people would be able to put food waste in there. I on the other hand, had all kinds of food waste that I couldn’t recycle or put in a composter. So there’s no actual standard. I think that’s what a lot of us discovered while we were doing this. More than anything we found that it takes a lot of effort to think about what is trash.

CP: As one individual person, how much of an impact can we actually have? Would our time and energy be better spent focusing on getting corporations to change their packaging practices?

TV: Sure. Absolutely. And that's one suggestion that came in. One of the listeners said, why don't we all take the unnecessary packaging and wrapping that comes with everything that we buy back to the store that we bought it from and say, "Here. I'm giving this back to you because this was an unnecessary part of my purchase." That would certainly be more effective than me carrying my trash around for two weeks. But that idea came because of "The Trash Challenge." It was put out there because of "The Trash Challenge." We're generating a conversation. And maybe people didn't know before about "the doggie dooley," which is this thing that you can put in the ground and you put your pet waste in it and it just basically ends up going into the soil and fertilizing your plants. And, yeah, one person is not going to make a difference in the grand scope of things. But, you know, if it causes people to think about it and put pressure on manufacturers and retailers, how can that be a bad thing?

CP: What did critics of "The Trash Challenge" say?

TV: Well, I did get a couple of comments on the blog that I was writing during these two weeks from critics who said, "You know what? This isn't going to do anything. What does your carrying trash around for two weeks accomplish? There's a limited public radio audience who are already true believers anyway." Even if it doesn't change the world, if it opens a few people's eyes to what they're doing—it opened my eyes. It changed how I look at my trash and what I decide to put in there and not put in there and even what I choose to buy in a grocery store. So, yeah, I'm one person. Yeah, it was one small challenge, but the more people hear about it, the more people who at least think about it.

CP: Without giving away too much of your upcoming talk at Macalester, is our consumer society sustainable?

TV: I would say no, especially when you look at the beginning of the consumption chain and how much energy and resources it takes to manufacture all of the stuff that we buy. All the stuff that we think we need and probably don’t. Those resources are coming out of the ground. They’re coming off the hills. They’re coming out of the air. And the earth is certainly a finite resource, not to sound like a tree hugger. The evidence of that is fairly overwhelming. So those things are manufactured and produced to meet our demands. If the demand goes down then by the law of supply and demand, they should ultimately stop making so much crap. And it’s also up to us to put our hands up and say, “Stop the marketing machine. I want to get off.” We have a story on Marketplace Money that part of the series that shows how difficult it is to get off that marketing wheel. So our habits are likely unsustainable but the solutions are very tough and especially in a society like America where it’s our God given right to go and buy everything we want, it’s going to be a very long, tough haul to convince people that they don’t need all that stuff that will eventually end up in a landfill.

You can read more about "The Trash Challenge" on the Marketplace Money website www.publicradio.org/columns/marketplace/trash or at Vigeland's talk at Macalester. Free; call for required tickets.
Wed., Nov. 14, 7 p.m., 2007

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