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Nicholas E. Johnson Headshot

Does Anyone Think About Trash?

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GARBAGE TRUCK
Alamy

New York City is something new to me. I moved to the city approximately a year and a half ago to begin a master's program and to explore one of the most fascinating cities in the world. My enthusiastic arrival was met with many new experiences, new people, a new lifestyle -- and trash. It first began as a bag or two scattered along the sidewalk which I simply needed to step around, but as weeks passed, these piles persisted and increased in size. Often I would catch a glimpse of an entire sidewalk full of black trash bags turning the sidewalk into a one way pedestrian passage.

These discoveries and encounters with sidewalk trash surprised me but I seemed to be the only one. While I would stop and take a picture of the largest trash pile to date, others would simply pass without a glance as if in denial that the trash even existed or worse, they passed with an understanding that this trash was normal. How could this be? How could this daily sidewalk dance with trash become so normal? My investigation began.

Documentation was the first step. I began taking pictures of any sidewalk trash I found throughout my daily routine which very quickly became an impossible task. Every street, every corner, every block, every day, there was trash. I had not the time nor the space on my phone to document such a bounty of waste and after a week, all of the photos seemed to run together.

This attempt to document all of New York's trash fell short of its goal but a secondary effect on my relationship with trash began, which I had not expected. I had become curious -- dare I say passionate -- about the life of trash. Few curbside bags went unnoticed and even the passing of a garbage truck would interrupt a conversation and divert my attention. Every trash can was carefully observed as was any person who thought to throw something away in my presence. What are they trowing way? Why this trash can? Who is going to collect this trash? Where does this trash go? Where does my trash go?

Where does my trash go? This was the question that stuck in my mind and refused to go away. This is the question that I began to ask and began to search for an answer. First stop, Google. First result, Fresh Kills Staten Island. Visible from space and three times the size of Central Park, Fresh Kills was the destination of all of New York City's trash for over half a century. All of that changed in 2001 when the site was officially closed and the capping process began. In thirty years, Fresh Kills is going to be a park. This was certainly an eye-opener but I'm stubborn and this was not the answer to my question, where does my trash go? Fresh Kills is where trash went. Now what?

Next stop, New York City's Department of Sanitation. The DSNY website is daunting to anyone visiting for the first time. Dozens of pages, links and cartoon trash cans helping people to understand what type of trash goes into what colored bin. After spending a great amount of time parsing through the website and even reading the 2012 and 2011 annual reports(which are exactly the same except for the numbers and pictures), I found that waste is exported from the city to surrounding states New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina. This information was useful and fascinating but still failed to give me any specific location. Trying to call, tweet or visit the DSNY resulted in the same failure to gather information. The answer to my question was proving to be elusive. It was time for more drastic measures.

My obsession with trash had spilled over into other aspects of my life, including my school work. I attend the Interactive Telecommunication Program at New York University which focuses on the intersection of design, technology and society and for me, this intersection means trash. So how does one engage citizens to understand where their trash goes? How can I track where my trash has been? Throw your phone away.

Mobile apps are hip these days. "There's an app for that!" is the unofficial slogan of mobile phone retailers and it is hard to find a topic that is not covered by some type of mobile app, except for trash. So, what if there was a mobile app that you could download onto your smartphone in order to track where your trash goes? You could download the app, throw your phone into the trash and login to a website to see where your trash goes. It's simple. So I bought the domain www.lifeoftrash.com, built the app, threw my phone in the trash and watched online the morning my trash was collected.

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