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How Much of Our Thinking About Waste is Really Just Perspective?

A shot of a row of recycling bins in a well - maintained city park. Generative AI
A shot of a row of recycling bins in a well - maintained city park with Generative AI

It has been said many times that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The simple but true proverb has been part of the American vernacular for more than 150 years. But it is more than just a wise saying. It’s also a glimpse into one of the more profound aspects of human thinking: what actually constitutes waste.

Could it be that much of our thinking about waste is really just a matter of perspective? Could it be that a lot of what we consider waste really isn’t? When you stop and think about how many millions of tons of trash we toss into landfills every year, giving serious consideration to what we consider waste is reasonable.

Turning Trash Into Art

The New York Times ran a piece in early February 2023 detailing the journey of a New Jersey artist-in-residence who created two massive sculptures for Rutgers University. At first glance, the story doesn’t look all that unusual compared to other art stories the Times has run. What makes it unique is the emphasis on turning trash into art.

Willie Cole, the artist in question, has a passion for both art and ecological responsibility. So when asked to make the two sculptures, he jumped at the chance to do so using discarded water bottles collected from throughout his hometown of Newark.

Whether or not trash should become art is a matter of perspective. There are probably those art lovers who appreciate Cole’s work and consider it every bit as artistic as anything produced by the Renaissance masters. But I would be willing to bet that there are an equal number who don’t consider anything made of trash real art. It is a matter of perspective.

Turning Trash Into a Marketable Product

Hundreds of miles away, in Memphis, TN, a company known as Seraphim Plastics picks up and hauls away tons of trash every day. They are after a specific kind of trash: post-industrial plastic scrap. Seraphim Plastics buys the scrap from injection mold manufacturers, industrial companies, and just about any other business that has the types of plastics they are after.

What does the company do with the plastic trash they buy? They transform it into a marketable product known as regrind. The process is simple enough: they truck the plastic waste back to their plant and immediately run it through a series of grinders and magnets. Grinding reduces the material to small pallets that are then packaged and sold as regrind.

Manufactures purchase regrind and mix it with virgin plastic to make new products. What would have otherwise ended up as trash in a landfill becomes a product another company is willing to buy and utilize. By doing what it does, Seraphim Plastics keeps tons of plastic waste out of landfills.

To Each His Own on Waste

Whether it is making art from trash in New Jersey or post-industrial plastics recycling in Tennessee, the whole idea of waste is really rooted in the concept of ‘to each his own’. As a consumer, I throw a lot of things out. That doesn’t mean I have to. I throw away what I consider to be waste. But someone else might find the equivalent of gold in my trash can.

I am a firm believer in the principle that I don’t have to do something just because I can. I don’t have to throw things in the trash can just because the can is ready and waiting to accept anything I don’t want hanging around any longer. Much of what I consider waste is a matter of my perspective.

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