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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

On Thinghood, Waste, and Reusable Cups

< is a dumpster diver. I don’t think it’s possible for her to go anywhere without veering into a trashcan. Once I spent an entire evening with her in a dumpster behind a bargain bookstore looking for cookbooks. The vast majority of the books that we ultimately recovered had titles like, “How to Incorporate Jesus into your Corporate Code.” I left feeling totally overwhelmed by the sheer number of worthless things that we allow to come into our world. I often look at things like sour gummy worms, and wonder how I could possibly live in a time when such things exist.

I think that the paper take-out cups in Carleton’s dining halls were emblematic of this phenomenon. It’s hard to imagine anything more innocuous and simultaneously more ubiquitous than a paper take out cup; they are inherently below our notice. What’s truly remarkable about them is that they enter into the world of thinghood for just fifteen minutes of use before they are returned to our good earth. They are formed from trees that were cut and processed, bleached and battered, glued and fabricated, just to be disposed of a few minutes after fulfilling their small role. It’s not just the cups though of course; I think we fail to recognize the life histories of most of our things. How I imagine the creation of things that quietly populate my world is a slow stream issuing from the recesses and crevices of the earth’s surface, combining and forming the French presses, and computers and bed sheets and board games. It’s a little like magic, and what’s more magical maybe, is that they come along that long and arduous road just for me. In general, we are the market, the first time users, the intended audience, and that’s more of a responsibility than I think we realize.

So why did we push for reusable cups in our dining halls? The answer is a little more complex than that we were simply trying to divert waste, or because we had anxiety over the large quantities of embodied energy that the cups represented. It came from a desire to reject the entitlement to convenience that is second nature to most of us. I don’t know if we fully comprehend the basic law of physics that no matter can be created or destroyed. If we did, we wouldn’t use so much packaging, buy so much, waste so much, or contaminate waste streams because we would think about the whole life cycle of the things that we consume up to the point when the earth digests and reclaims them. A lot of the time we think of all of our things as a blip in our existence (if we even think about them at all). I would propose that we think of ourselves as a small blip in the long and strenuous life of our things.

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