by Patrick Collier and Meagan Brant 

Empty Mountain Dew cans…empty cigarette boxes…two medium sized paint brushes with grey-ish paint dried on…

trashIf the everyday is that which is always before us but escapes our notice, then what could be more everyday than trash?

In the simple act of dropping something in the waste can, we create trash, many times, every day. Indeed, the act of placing an object in a receptacle designated for trash actually transforms the object: in its transit from our hands to the basket, the thing becomes trash. A used novel you don’t feel like carrying to Half Price Books? An old skirt too threadbare to donate to the thrift store? These are not trash inherently: we make them so through the silent, and at best partly conscious, value judgment embodied in the act of “throwing something away.”


Contact lens containers…a tuna can…a 1-month empty package of birth control pills….

If a value judgment, conscious or not, underlies every act of throwing away, then we should be able to read our trash as an index of that which we do not value, or value incompletely, or value very, very briefly.


Cheese wrapper…Tomato can…orange peels…

The word “trash” has been around since the 16th century, but arrived at its current meaning—“domestic refuse, garbage”—in the early twentieth century. (The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first such usage in 1906, in a municipal ordinance.) This was precisely the time when trash disposal in the United States became a public concern. Our industrializing economy was producing, in previously unseen amounts, 1) more commodities than people could buy, 2) disposable packaging for those commodities, and 3) byproducts of their manufacture.

Earlier meanings of “trash” expressed its pejorative shadings more directly: “worthless stuff” (1612), “worthless notions or talk, nonsense” (1542), “a worthless or disreputable person” (1616).

Of course, such impolite usages are alive today: “white trash,” “trash talk,” “a trashy novel.”

Critic Michele Ty writes: “The semantic ambiguity within the word itself…intimates that trash, as both substance and concept, is poised at the juncture between thought and material life, object and person, individual and class.” [1]


Ketchup packets…many more empty cigarette boxes…many bottles and fast food restaurant cups that once held sugary liquids…

Our trash shows the trace of our addictions. Things we consume compulsively and excessively will, logically, leave a larger footprint in our trash. An image of this dynamic is the ubiquity of cigarette butts in litter.

Why on earth is it socially acceptable to dispose of cigarette butts on the street?


A used napkin stained with salad dressing…an old blouse with an armpit-stain

Personally and as a culture, we work to put distance between ourselves and trash, to put trash out of sight. The waste can goes behind the cabinet doors under the sink. The garbage can goes in the garage. The dump sits on the outskirts of town, or near one of its most economically and politically powerless neighborhoods. [2]

In Freudian terms, trash is the municipal unconscious.

Meagan, one of the co-authors of this essay, recently volunteered with Keep Muncie Beautiful to pick up litter downtown. She was handed a picker—a beautifully functional object that allows you to snag litter while keeping two-and-a-half feet between your hands and the offending objects.


The plastic lids that go on paper cups from convenience stores…burger wrappers… a Subway straw wrapper

photo1Litter—trash that has not been processed appropriately and thus sits out in view—marks the economic health (or ill-health) of a neighborhood and the presence (or absence) of well-functioning institutions. Custodial staff at Ball State spend eight to ten hours per week emptying trash bins and picking up litter on the Ball State campus. Muncie’s Sanitary District can arrange litter pick-up in your neighborhood—provided you can assemble at least 6 volunteers to assist. [3]

Michele Ty writes: “the allocation of waste…demarcates, often more forcefully than political borders, what geographic zones are unliveable, what ones are subject to abandonment, and what spaces are habitable only at great risk.”


Walmart plastic bags…a used tissue… [4]

If trash is what we leave behind, what happens when we leave people, neighborhoods, or whole communities behind?

Walter Benjamin argued that a culture’s trash can show us what industrial and commercial “progress” is leaving behind. Trash, that is, offers physical evidence of the unmet promises that “economic development” has left in its wake. Reading our trash, then, can become a way of “cataloguing the broken promises that have been abandoned in the everyday trash of history.” [5]

Muncie’s landscape is currently scarred by empty factories and factory properties. The most obvious are the huge lot of the former GM plant on Eighth Street and the (still-standing) one-million-square foot Warner Gear plant on Kilgore Avenue. Early stage plans call for the creation of an athletic fields complex at the GM property. The old gear plant has been up for lease since 2009.

In Benjamin’s terms, we might read these vast unused properties as evidence of history’s unmet promises—as trash writ large. Or, as images of the transformation that creates trash, frozen in time. For now these properties rest in a sort of limbo, neither useful spaces nor trash, waiting to see whether history will reverse the trashing process or whether they are fated to remain symbols of economic abandonment.



1. “Trash and the Ends of Infrastructure.” Modern Fiction Studies 61.4 (Winter 1015): 606-630.
2. Ben Highmore, “Benjamin’s Trash Aesthetics.” Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. New York and London: Routledge, 2002. 60-75.
3. This isn’t to criticize the practices of the Sanitary District, which is comparatively quite effective and progressive. The point is that the amount of litter in a neighborhood points to larger structural inequalities in society—inequalities that Muncie’s government is actively trying to mitigate, with inadequate resources. The neighborhood cleanup program lends municipal resources to neighbors who take initiative; but the need for this initiative means that the least cohesive communities will remain the most litter-strewn.
4. All of the items in italics were thrown away by the authors around the time of this essay’s composition or picked up downtown by Meagan during her volunteer stint.
5. Ben Highmore, “Benjamin’s Trash Aesthetics.” Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. New York and London: Routledge, 2002. 60-75.

Leave a Reply