Matter in Place. Geographies of Trash
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Matter in Place. Geographies of Trash

Posted on May 9, 2017 by Urban UrbanNext

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In August 1966, LIFE Magazine published “Planet Earth by Dawn’s Early Light,” a photo-essay from the Gemini 10 shuttle flight. Capturing the earth from the most remote perspective to date, the final photograph of the series showed a single trash bag floating in space, a bag which contained objects that NASA intended to leave behind before the mission’s return to Earth.

At over a million feet above the planet’s surface, the plastic bag and its contents seemed categorically unrelated to trash on Earth, more of a time capsule than litter. Suspended in outer space, the bag might be construed as what anthropologist Mary Douglas refers to as “matter-out-of place,” that is, transgressive matter whose presence reaffirms the purity of its surroundings. Yet the short essay that closed the article alerted readers to the “growing clutter of space trash” arguing that the more than 1,200 large objects in orbit could someday “cause a serious traffic problem in space.” Not even the infinite volume of outer space was exempt from the perils of trash. As the editors of LIFE observed, just as cities had become clogged with animal waste and garbage, space trash could eventually become the proper concern of extraterrestrial street cleaners.

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Trash bag floating in space, photo-essay from the Gemini 10 shuttle flight.

Similar concerns were also amassing on the ground. Although sanitation experts had increasingly rationalized the management and processing of waste in the first half of the twentieth century, garbage, and the question of its disposal continued to be a problem without a definitive solution. The federal government intervened with the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, which was the first federal law to directly recognize the impact of the things we throw away on our environment. Yet this bill made no stipulations for the production of waste, and with both population and economic growth, garbage continued to pile up. In 1987, the Mobro 4000 barge infamously hauled three thousand tons of trash from New York to Belize and back until it was finally incinerated where it originated in New York. “Burn it, Bury it, Recycle it, or Send it on a Caribbean Cruise,” were former mayor of New York City Ed Koch’s suggestions for the fate of garbage in the wake of the Garbage Barge fiasco. The incident sparked nation-wide concern about an impending “garbage crisis,” in which the production of waste would continue to surpass our capacity to dispose of it. Trash was regarded as a dystopic symptom of consumer society. Rather than treating the cause however, the response was to further remove trash from sight, containing it in large-scale yet invisible from all but an aerial view mega-landfills. Once enclosed, odorless, and away, trash is matter-out-of-site. Yet in its larger ecosystem, trash is still matter-out-of-place: a vile residue whose exile confirms the health and fecundity of the society from which it was removed, and, paradoxically, by which it was produced.