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Kathy's Story: "How I Got Involved in Rotten Truth (About Garbage)"

photo of Kathy McLean Why am I interested in garbage? Probably because it's off limits, it's a whole realm of stuff that we're not supposed to look at. Social convention says we should ignore it, or at least not discuss it in polite company.

When you do look at it, it's so much more than garbage -- it's symbolic. Garbage represents how we move through the world, how we move through time on this planet. Shell middens, dumps -- they're all residues of human activity.

Garbage is stuff we don't want to see, but we can't live without it. Garbage is the shadow side of society, and I'm interested in the shadow.

Garbage is the other side of life, it is a part of our lives on this planet. So much of our environment, these days, is processed, sanitized, and uninteresting. Look around you. Everything you see will someday be garbage. And some of the most uninteresting stuff around you right now might become very interesting when it's garbage. A jewelry box with tomato juice cans inside it. Pages of the telephone book crumpled around mattress springs. Leather shoes resting on a tire.

Some of my favorite things came from dumps: the beautiful piece of rusty saw blade that looks like a sculpture, the dented old watering can that has seen a lot of gardens, the slab of marble that sits on my desk, and the painted sewing table that's now in my living room. All of these things have seen a lot of action, a lot of human energy, and imagination.

I'm not saying that because we are destined to make garbage, we should just do it and not think of ways to make less. On the contrary. We make too much garbage, particularly in the United States. By looking at how much garbage we make, we can see how much stuff we consume and use up, how much we waste.

When I first started on the Rotten Truth (About Garbage) project, I took a good look at my own garbage -- my husband and I threw "away" three or four big heavy soggy bags a week. I decided to make less, and wondered how small I could get my garbage without changing my entire life around. First, I bought a backyard composter and put anything that might be good for my garden in it: all the kitchen scraps, used paper towels, coffee grounds, even dryer lint and toothpicks. That reduced my garbage a lot, and the bags were no longer smelly and soggy. Then I recycled all the paper (and I mean all): newspaper, office paper, junk mail, boxes, paper labels off cans, toilet paper rolls, cereal boxes, even the tiny package my new toothbrush came in. I also recycled all my glass and cans, and stopped buying anything in plastic containers (since my city doesn't provide curbside pickup for plastic). That got us down to about one grocery-sized bag of garbage a week. If I spent some time on it (which I don't have at the moment), I could make it even smaller.

My advice for exhibit designers who are concerned about reducing the amount of waste that results from the exhibit design process: Stop it. Be creative, share and give away, and use what you already have.

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