The Thread: American Garbage


I enter the courtyard and my eyes go up. Rusting bicycles and extra wheels hang from the ceiling. Roped together with Christmas lights, white chain link, twine. The gears and the chains like obelisks, a lighting fixture made of odds and ends, collected over time, strung together, hoisted high above me. Above that, glass bottles with their necks sunk into concrete. Pieces of mirror cut and pasted to the wall. Every single surface mosaicked with something. Bits of shattered pottery, letters Sharpied onto tiles spelling out poems and manifestos: Art is all there is. The Bride Has Many Suitors, Even. This is art like jazz, improvised from the street up to the sky, some curated beautiful chaos.


My grandparents had a garbage chute—a luxury that meant they never had to touch their trash twice. When I was very young, I would stand in the laundry room, staring up at the shiny tin door that covered the chute hole in the wall. I thought it was magic—garbage bags went in, but where did they go? When I got older, I figured out where: their house had three stories, and on the bottom story a long outdoor stairway. The stairs, slick with moss and algae, led to a tiny loop of a street around a secret garden next to their garage. They kept their garbage cans here, settled under the garbage chute, so that nobody ever had to walk a bag of trash down to the first floor.

In the mornings when we visited, sometimes I would wake up to the sound of the city trash collectors driving their squeaky trucks with the giant compactors on the street below. I would watch out of the third story window: tiny garbage collectors hopped out of their truck, ran the slick stairs, and carried my grandparents’ garbage back down to the street. They hoisted it, bag by bag, into the back, and then the truck compressed it with a giant roar. For many years I didn’t think about garbage beyond this. One rattling truck, squeaking brakes and roaring machinery in the back. Three men, one riding on the side, arm latched, legs ready to jump off at the next address. The hiss and squeal of stop. The lurch of forward. This was all I knew of garbage. This was all I had been asked to know.


Last year, Carmen Maria Machado wrote an essay about the powerful, fat, femme Marjory the Trash Heap from the 80s children’s show Fraggle Rock (alongside Ursula from The Little Mermaid). I loved Fraggle Rock, would watch it on weekends on video recordings from my grandma, the labels written in her slanted hand. My grandparents had HBO, while we didn’t even have cable. We did, however, have a VCR, and my grandma would send us tapes of things she thought we’d like. For my brother and me, it was Fraggle Rock and The Secret of NIMH.

Machado’s essay blew me away. (This was before I’d read her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, which rocked the world when it debuted last October.) I loved the Trash Heap, too, though the size and shape of her trash body didn’t intrigue me as much as her grandmotherly accent and her nonsensical wisdoms. Marjory was the oracle to the Fraggles, the wisest person on the show. It wasn’t until after reading Machado’s essay that I realized the trash heap taught me to value garbage differently. She was shifting paradigms, sending treasured wisdom and bluesy riffs out of a literal garbage pile. She was a challenge and a clapback to the idea of waste and garbage as a useless thing, a problem to be dealt with by erasure rather than mined for its metaphorical gold.


My coworker, Carol, invited me to meet her at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. It was the last afternoon of a three-day business trip. I was so tired, and my brain was so full of information, I had thought I might sit in a coffee shop, typing furiously about trash, the dumpster fire of America, and our responsibility to do something different with the waste we create. I was feeling hopeless.

I had begged off a walk, settling myself in a hipster coffee house and forcing myself to read and brainstorm and write. What makes something valuable, I asked myself. What do Americans throw away, and what does that garbage become? After reading about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the path of garbage from the American home to the Chinese countryside, I was beginning to feel that everything was trash.

It was then that I saw Carol’s message. I’m at the Magic Gardens, she wrote. It reminds me of what you said you’re writing about.

I clicked my laptop shut. A chance to move my body through a space created by a famous dumpster diver? I texted Carol: I’m on my way.

I tossed my latte cup in the trash can on my way out the door.


In second grade, I had a schoolmate whose father either owned or operated a landfill. I remember driving to visit him at work, up a windy road to a large smelly place with a small office. The mountains of trash looming up over the parking lot, moldering in the sun. Recycling was an idea then, but not a reality. Everything went in the garbage. The garbage went in the truck, and the truck, I now realized, went to the dump. That seemed like a satisfactory end to the garbage, although now I know better: that wasn’t really the end.


A chemical engineer named Veena Sahajwalla is working to shift the same paradigm as the Trash Heap, using actual waste. I don’t know if Sahajwalla was a Fraggle Rock fan, but she certainly seems to embrace the Trash Heap’s wisdom. Her research is on reusing “waste” materials in manufacturing. In her TED Talk, she discusses cars and steel. The steel in a car is already recycled, but the rest of the components (mostly made of compound plastic) are simply thought of as waste. Sahajwalla says that by adding some of the (currently trashed) compound plastic to the steel recycling process, the steel manufacturer saves money, converts waste to resource, and most importantly, gets better-performing steel.

She sees the whole world with a chemical engineer’s mind. She doesn’t see plastic, she sees the molecules that make up plastic. The molecules are valuable even if the plastic we see is not. She sees trash as treasure, as resource, as building blocks for other things. She’s reimagined the landfill from a place where we send useless garbage to decay out of sight, to a sitting mine of chemical elements, only in need of innovation, thoughtfulness, and the ability to create high temperatures.


At my grandparents’ house, I could stay up on the main level, bundle the garbage into a bag, stuff it into the shiny tin hole in the wall, and it was gone. Gone like most American garbage, to somewhere out of sight. There are piles of American garbage in other countries where we pay them to receive our garbage because our landfill is worth more than their land. There are boats in the ocean carrying American garbage across the sea. Because of our trade deficit, it has been expeditious for boats from other countries to return to their homeland with piles of our garbage rather than pay the fees for returning with an empty vessel. For years, we have been the world’s number one exporter of garbage.

By late elementary school, I had read a book called 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, and was more conscientious about what garbage was, and where it went. I became an evangelized recycler, a native Californian who is perfectly comfortable sorting my plastics, papers, cans, and cardboard from my compostables. When friends from other places would visit me in San Francisco, one of the most common complaints they had (or wry jokes they made) was that they couldn’t figure out how to throw anything away correctly. I would sanctimoniously think of what a small price it was to pay to save the earth as I walked them through the bins, the rules, and the dos and don’ts of sorting.


We think we know where garbage goes, but we don’t; we think we know what we’re throwing away, but we don’t. Cups and straws and lids and plastic utensils. Bits of hair stuck to paper napkins wiped quickly across mouths. Skin cells, spit. Every day, most of us throw away something that is covered in our DNA.

If a police suspect had thrown his coffee cup in the same trash can at the Philadelphia coffee shop as I did, the police can take the whole garbage bag to a lab and analyze everything in it for genetic material. They do this in hopes that they’ll find the suspect’s DNA, but they will also find mine, and anyone else’s who happened to toss something in the garbage can on their way out the door. What can they do with that information?

Most people, I think, would assume nothing. After all, I didn’t do anything wrong, and neither did most of the patrons who would have thrown away a straw or a lid around the same time as the suspect. But the legal status of that ancillary information remains a gray area. Legal scholars call this the “abandoned DNA” problem. Most jurisdictions have yet to draft laws that protect the privacy of this information. Although it is one of the most intimate things about our bodies, containing the blueprint for our appearances, our families, and our health, DNA doesn’t fall into any of the areas traditionally protected by our Constitution: papers, houses, effects.

Abandoned DNA has solved cases, especially when a criminal suspect has refused to submit to a voluntary DNA sample. Although the Supreme Court has said that it is permissible to collect DNA evidence as a matter of course during arrest (sort of the modern equivalent of fingerprinting), police need probable cause to support an arrest warrant barring some exigent circumstances. And this means that they can have very strong hunches about a suspect’s guilt, and still are not able to force the suspect to give them the DNA sample that would link the suspect to the crime.

If the suspect abandons some garbage that contains his or her DNA, and the police can get a hold of it, the evidence is probably admissible in court and can be used to convict the suspect of the crime. There have been a number of highprofile serial killers caught with this kind of abandoned (or unintended) DNA disclosure. The police, like Veena Sahajwalla, have begun to see garbage as a resource.


In October 2017, signs appeared in my local supermarket (recycling station for plastic bags and plastic takeout containers that my local hauler wouldn’t take) claiming they could no longer accept those items.

Months later, I found out why: China, who had up until October of 2017 been the largest importer of American trash, was now saying no. After years of taking our garbage, compounded by years of creating more and more of their own, China no longer has room for (or interest in dealing with) American garbage.

As the plastic bags built up in the cupboard, and the plastic containers from every weeknight takeout continued to accrue, my eco-anxiety spiked. Later, once I accepted there was nothing else to be done, the image of a plastic-strangled earth haunted me from the black bin in my garbage can.


Then there is the aforementioned garbage drifting in the Pacific, a floating dump larger than the state of Texas. Some call it the Pacific Trash Vortex, others the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Discovered in 1998, halfway between California and Hawaii, the garbage patch is primarily a soup of microplastics, which makes it both more and less terrifying than the mass I imagine when I close my eyes. Less terrifying because I used to picture an island of plastic takeout containers, and the reality of it is something that can’t be seen from the air. More terrifying because these suspended microplastics are much more difficult to imagine cleaning up, given that they’re a near-invisible stew that sits inches below the surface of the water. And by the way, the Pacific Garbage Patch is only one of the five ocean plastic vortexes on the planet. The number of creatures, from plankton to porpoises, that we have probably strangled in our plastic waste makes me want to weep. Panic rises in my belly, shoves its way through my chest cavity, and everything goes tight.

And then, I push it away, periodically dropping the image through the imaginary trash chute in my mind: the little silver tin door to no-place that I want to stuff full of knowledge that makes me feel this badly.

I buy another latte with another plastic lid. I toss the whole thing into the garbage can at least once a day (coffee cups are wax- or plastic-lined so they don’t leak, and this makes them non-recyclable). I buy bread, baby carrots for my daughter’s lunch, and yogurt tubes, all of them wrapped in plastic that I toss in the garbage can, trying to push the reality of my own waste out of my mind. Some days I wish I could forget what I know about garbage, erase the images from my mind of the plastic detritus raked back to the borders of pristine private beaches from the sea.


In the early 1990s, sculpture and mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar began working on mosaicking his studio on South Street in Philadelphia. Isaiah and Julia Zagar had moved to the neighborhood in the late 1960s after a stint in Peru with the Peace Corps. The city planned to demolish the “blighted” neighborhood to build the Central Expressway. Historically, South Philadelphia was an ethnically diverse neighborhood made up of Irish, Italian, Polish, Southern and Eastern Europeans immigrants, and Black families who had migrated north from southern states. The South Street community rallied to save their neighborhood from demolition, Isaiah, Julia, and other artists began to open galleries and Isaiah began creating his signature murals on the walls. This time period is known as the South Street Renaissance.

Originally, Isaiah created his mosaicked murals as public art, and you can see them on over two hundred surfaces in the South Street neighborhood. But in the early 2000s, the owner of an abandoned property that Isaiah had been mosaicking demanded $300,000 or else he would demolish and sell the property. Again, the community rallied, and the non-profit that operates the Magic Gardens today was born. Free to do what he liked with the space, Isaiah created multiple galleries inside, as well as courtyards, grottos, and stairways. Every surface is covered in his incredible murals and a pastiche of Latin folk art, china plates, broken shards of mirror, glass bottles, and pottery.

Isaiah is a complicated man: mentally ill, a child sex abuse victim, and by many accounts, rather prickly and narcissistic. He claims his art is his coping mechanism, an outlet for the mess he feels inside. Nearly ten years ago, his youngest son, Jeremiah, made a documentary called In a Dream, where Isaiah’s assholery and humanity are both on full display.

Walking through this temple of trash to treasure was a sumptuous experience. Each shattered piece on its own is recognizable as “garbage” and yet, when my eyes wandered over the space, I was filled with a near-religious awe. It was like a holy place. The glass bottles, the brick, the mermaid sculpture with bared breasts pasted on a wall, the tile, the broken shards, the dark black block letters carefully spelling manifestos, all brought me out of my impossible dark depression about what trash is and how we value—or fail to value—it. I was somehow, magically, walking through a literal temple to the beauty that can come from what people throw away. It reminded me that what is considered “garbage” is relative. That nothing is inherently useless. That there are many varied ways to alchemize what some would call trash into a resource. Instead of despairing, I felt hope. And, although I forget all the time, most of the time, there may be nothing more American.


Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.


The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.

Marissa Korbel is managing editor at The Rumpus, and a critically acclaimed essayist. You can also find her writing at Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. She lives and works as a public interest attorney in Portland, Oregon. Marissa tweets @likethchampagne. More from this author →