Project Pack Out

Over the past year or so, I’ve gotten much more aware of the trash problem. But even as I compost, buy my food in bulk, and wouldn’t be caught dead with a disposable coffee cup, it’s still all too easy to order a packaged delivered, grab an office snack, and let the associated garbage vanish from sight (and mind), into the lidded maw of communal trash cans.

So I’m starting a project for myself, which I’ve dubbed Project Pack Out (as in the outdoorsing policy). It’s simple: for each week in 2023, I will collect all the landfill trash I produce in a clear container and weigh it at the end of the week.

The box sits on my desk at work. I bring it home at night and put it on my bedroom floor. It’s not flashy, but it’s there.

I was thinking about the way we treat the Great Outdoors when I came up with the name. It strikes me as a little hypocritical how us hikers can be about trash in the environment. Trash on the trails in a beautiful national park? Sacrilegious. Pick it up. Some disrespectful person must have left it behind. But return to urban life, and we’re back to tossing plastic wrap and takeout boxes in the bin (don’t forget, a vast majority of plastic is not recycled, even if you put it in the recycling bin) and doing our very best to ignore the trash all over the sidewalks we strut. We pay to making the world trashier, and then pay to visit the less trashed part (sound familiar?). What’s so different about trash on the sidewalk and trash on the trail? Mainly our expectations.

Somewhere within our industrial mindset, there’s a place called Away. When something breaks, or bores us, we throw it in the garbage and trash collectors take it Away. We flush a toilet and invisible pipes take it all Away. However, we are slowly learning that Away was always really just Somewhere Else, because everything is connected.

Peter Kalmus, Being The Change

Awareness is what I’m thinking about. I’m really looking forward to becoming more aware of the trash I produce and observing it decrease. In the mere three days since I’ve started, I’ve already noticed those effects beginning. When I consider getting something with packaging, the thought of adding that material to my container encourages me to reconsider—a helpful nudge.

For the curious who ask, “but what about…”

  • “Medically necessary” trash: this is not a virtue competition, so it includes “medically necessary” trash, like pill bottles and contact solution bottles.
  • Food scraps: Not included. It would get really gross, and also I compost my food scraps.
  • Anything with bodily fluids: Come on. Not included.
  • Impractically large objects, like furniture, shoes, etc: These are too big to carry around, but I will document them.
  • Recyclables: Plastic recycling is a big mess, so I am counting all plastic as landfill trash for this project, even if I am ultimately going to put it in the blue bin. Same for textiles. Paper recycling is a lot more legit, so I will not be counting it as landfill trash, although if there are any large quantities I will try to document them. Metal and glass recycling are pretty legit, so I will not be counting those as landfill trash, but I don’t expect to use a lot of them either.
  • Lab waste: For obvious reasons I cannot be taking my used gloves out of the lab.

This sounds like that mason jar woman

It does! Credit to Lauren Singer for inspiration.

The first [step] is you have to figure out what your garbage is. You can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is.

Lauren Singer, New York Magazine interview

A hope I had for this was that it could be a more immediately actionable version of her headlining “4 years of trash in a mason jar” story. Plenty, if not most people produce more than a pint of trash per day, so after hearing about Singer’s achievement, maybe they’d immediately dismiss the possibility of doing a trash collection experiment at all. But in Project Pack Out, there is no specific container size, and the container gets emptied every week. I think the visibility is effective, even without a mandated volume.

I’m interested in doing this too!

I would love to have a buddy on this adventure! Do get in touch. I also made an Instagram account @projectpackout but I’m not sure if I will have the gumption to be very active there. But maybe I will. Either way, you’ll hear back from me right here in a year.

But really, why bother?

There’s a couple things this question could be about, some of which I aim to address in future posts. I won’t give them a full treatment here, but I’ll address them briefly.

1) Why is trash a problem?

Although I’m lucky enough not to live near one, landfills are enormous (600 acres on average in the U.S.) and incredibly toxic. Trash also migrates throughout every inch of the world. Microplastics fall in the snow in Antarctica. They’re in our goddamn blood. All in all, trash is ugly to look at, harmful to living beings, and those effects persist for decades to centuries and beyond.

2) Aren’t there more effective ways of reducing trash for the effort you’re putting in?

First of all, it’s very little effort for me to put trash in a slightly different container. Second of all, I can and do pick up litter, donate to environmental charities, and try to spread awareness (see: this post). Lastly, I’m a believer that the way you live your life not only changes who you are, but in a big way, is who you are. In simpler terms, I’m trying to generate inertia in the right direction.

3) You’re not going to even scratch the surface of the world’s trash problem. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is still going to be there. You are merely one insignificant person amongst billions. Nothing matters. Order that Amazon package. Get a coffee in a paper cup. Fill your closet with fast fashion. America Runs On Dunkin.

Ah yes, the hobgoblin of helplessness that plagues so many of our good intentions. Much has been said about why it lies (also see: I Didn’t Fly In 2022), but the quote I’ll leave you with today is this one, on the topic of global warming:

Naysayers claim that our predicament is so big that individual actions don’t matter, thereby justifying their inaction. I disagree, of course; this viewpoint may even be quintessentially evil, if the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is indeed for good people to do nothing.

Peter Kalmus, Being The Change

Here’s to not being quintessentially evil!

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