My Exhibit ... In the Museum of Trash

To better understand his waste footprint, Dave Chameides stored all of his trash in his basement for a year. But what do you do with a year's worth of garbage? The Museum of Trash had the answer.
365 Days of Trash

Dave Chameides surrounded by the garbage he saved in the basement of his L.A. home.

Photo by Jonathan Alcorn.

It’s not everyday that a guy like me has something of his installed in a museum. It’s an even rarer occasion when a guy like me has a year’s worth of his trash installed in a museum. But come Saturday, that’s exactly what will be happening at The Museum of Trash in Hartford, Connecticut.

Last year, I undertook a project called 365 Days of Trash. For one entire year, I decided that instead of throwing things “away,” I would keep all my garbage in my basement and see what happened. I figured that as a result of not being able to have everything disappear from the curb each week, and of having a very finite place to store it all (my basement is a wee little place), I’d have to start making some hard choices about what I was using, buying, and discarding.

By the end of the year, I had accumulated only 28.5 pounds of trash. While I probably started with a smaller waste footprint than most (the average American generates 1600 pounds a year) I was impressed that a little knowledge went such a long way. Imagine if everyone were forced to deal with their own waste rather than having it magically disappear from the curb each week!

Around September of 2008, I realized that I needed to start thinking about the end of the year—what would I do with everything I had collected? It seemed a shame to toss it all, as I had learned so much from this small pile of trash (yes, I’m waxing nostalgic about garbage). But I really didn’t need it anymore. Since I had composted all my food scraps and washed everything else with my leftover dishwater, there wasn’t really a rush; still, it seemed that a more noble end than the curb was in order.

Enter the Museum of Trash, a project of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority. While visiting in August of 2008 (I was born in Connecticut), my nephew, noting that I had become a bit of a trash hoarder myself, suggested I should check the place out. A museum devoted to trash? I was intrigued.

I called in. Oddly enough, they had heard of me and had even passed around a few of my videos. Strange place the trash world is. I headed down and found a truly unique, cool, and highly educational museum. It’s designed with students in mind but is intended for adults as well.

When you first enter you are confronted with the Temple of Trash, a large structure made of items that were pulled on their way to the landfill. It’s quite an eye opener. Other exhibits include a worm composting area (a personal favorite of mine), an explanation of the recycling process complete with visuals of what gets recycled and how, a cool wall illustration on the history of trash, and a hands-on area where kids can re-use items and turn them into art.

Midway BeachJourney to Midway
Five artists travel to Midway Island to witness the catastrophic effect of our disposable culture.

For me, though, the highlight of the museum was the view into the single stream processing plant, where trucks dump recyclables which are then sorted according to type. Digital cameras allow you to zoom in on the action and watch as bursts of air, magnets, and a host of other techniques separate the different materials from one another. The last time I was there, my dad and I stood watching the trucks come in one after the other. It was his first time in such a facility. After a few minutes he looked at me and said, “I had no idea there was so much of it.” And that’s exactly the point the museum makes so well. Most of us have no idea and need to be educated.

While I was there, the folks who run the museum asked me what my plans were for the end of the year. When I confided in them that I hadn’t thought that far ahead, they asked if I’d be interested in donating my trash as a permanent exhibit.

So come Saturday, the Sustainable Dave exhibit will officially open—complete with a trunk that holds all of my trash, a wall of videos, and some cool artwork by Ted Esselstyn. It’s really quite amazing that after all it taught me, my stuff will (hopefully) continue to educate others on how to waste less. I’m forever in the museum's debt for offering this great opportunity—and for taking my trash off my hands, as well.

Save your trash and become a permanent museum installation. Who would have thought, huh?

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