Although its etymology is mostly unknown, the word “trash” is used to mean things that are at the end of their useful life and are no longer of any value to their users. In short, trash is a discarded matter. The sharp increase in waste production in the recent decade has made waste management a global issue. This crisis was brought by the widespread tendency to readily discard things that are still useful. There is a certain conceptual boundary between what is considered useful and what is not and should be discarded. The criteria that make something a waste have widely varied throughout history.
In past agrarian societies, there was virtually “nothing to throw away.” Reusing by-products of everyday life or returning them to nature was a lifestyle. Moreover, as people obtained goods they needed either by making them themselves or bartering, an excess of goods was a rare occurrence. Even human excreta were not readily disposed of, as they were considered valuable resources for fertilizing land.1)
However, industrialization has radically changed production methods. Mass production has resulted in an overabundance of goods, which, in turn, has led to mass consumption. Although some, like the American economist Galbraith, call it “affluence,” this so-called affluence is maintained only as long as continuous growth is guaranteed both in production and consumption. Hence, an accelerated cycle of replacement of goods has become necessary to maintain the cycle of mass production and consumption. People are encouraged to discard items that are still useful to acquire new ones, resulting in the ever-growing mountains of waste. In Waste and Want, the American historian Susan Strasser notes: “For the first time in human history, disposal became separated from production, consumption, and use.”
Mass consumption tightened its grip on our lives, thanks to the nationwide resource distribution system. Cheap raw materials sourced from overseas further brought down the prices of goods. Globally sourced raw materials are oftentimes cheap enough for new goods to be produced at a significantly lower cost than that of processing used goods for reuse or recycling. At the same time, the abundant availability of goods caused a drop in their relative value, continuously increasing the cycle of replacement and driving up the rate of waste production, much of which is accounted for by still perfectly usable items. Although production systems in industrialized societies have made equality in consumption of necessities a reality, they have also inaugurated the history of waste production, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman puts it.2)
Another noteworthy phenomenon is that amid an onslaught of ordinary products, consumers are pressured to continuously seek comparatively less ordinary, more uncommon, or valuable items. TV commercials tirelessly show how certain products can make us innovative, elegant, and valuable. New products that surpass their predecessors continuously hit the market, causing the latter’s value to plummet. This cycle in which products that once reflected a consumer’s taste and preference become undesirable and abandoned because of a new choice is an essential pillar that supports the economic system of an industrialized society.
An important factor that influences the consumption pattern in modern society is that goods are used as a means of self-expression. People frequently seek to show who they are through the objects that they own. They also judge others based on the things that they own. This is a process that involves the exchange of various types of information, including the style or economic value of objects in question or the amount thereof. Susan Strasser cited “competitive and ostentatious consumption,” along with “response to trends,” and “planned obsolescence,” as key factors contributing to the mass production of waste in modern society.
She further pointed out that active consumption and the massive production of waste are ways of showing off one’s power. In modern capitalist industrial societies, which thrive on unlimited consumption, consumption is equal to power. While consumers are a power group reigning over the market, there exists an internal hierarchy within this group, dividing them into different classes according to their consumption power. Consuming goods that are distinct from the ones that most people use is one way of expressing such power. Abandoning items that are still perfectly usable without any qualm to acquire new ones is also linked to the desire of individuals or groups of high economic status to display power.
As a result, there is no longer a universal definition for trash, as people dispose of things based on their own definition of what is to be considered trash. In other words, trash no longer has recognizable attributes that are visible to all eyes, as things are thrown away to satisfy different needs.
Life in modern society inevitably leads to the production of trash. As consumption results in a commensurate amount of waste, the question of “what and how” in all the things that we do necessarily entails “what to dispose of and how to dispose of them.” Given this, trash always contains various information about those who produced and disposed of trash. Miyazuka Toshio, a professor at the University of Yamanashi in Japan, conducts research on the North Korean society by analyzing the waste produced in the country, which was collected through several different routes. For Miyazuka Toshio, trash is a valuable source of information about this hermetic country isolated from the outside world.3)
However, the most fundamental information that trash contains is human labor that was wasted in various ways. Labor is an essential attribute of humanness. It makes human beings human. People in today’s society are oblivious of the value of labor because they no longer own the means of production and have now become cogs in a vast machine of production, thereby losing direct connections to the results of their labor. Notwithstanding, all goods are the fruit of human labor, which attests to the fact that “human beings are living as humans.” This is why the subject “trash” should not only be discussed in the ecological or environmental context, in which it has a concrete and direct relevance, but also in relation to lifestyle, society, and human nature.
In recent years, with the emergence of waste management problems as a societal crisis, there has been a heightened awareness as well as growing efforts to find solutions to these problems in various parts of Korean society, ranging from the environmental sector and the industry to the art world including fields related to minimalism and other concepts. If completely stopping the production of waste is not an option or possibility under the current social and economic system, we must at least seriously think about “what to leave” to future generations through our waste. Just as how waste bears witness to the lifestyle that we have led, the way we deal with this waste will reflect on the values we hold dear.
1）A farmer shall wake up at dawn to start work early and rest at dusk, plow his fields deeply, and weed them thoroughly. It is his job to cart human waste to his fields to enrich poor soil, remove grass to nurture healthy seedlings to produce only vigorous crops and stock grain in the granary. “Veritable Record of King Jeongjo,” The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, January 1, the 7th year of Jeongjo’s reign.
2）Bauman, Zygmunt. Jeong Iljun, (Trans.). Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Seoul: Saemulgyul, 2008.
3）"To Solve the Riddle of North Korea, a Scholar Collects Its Garbage-Toshio Miyatsuka finds clues about country’s secretive culture in its clutter", 『Wall Street Journal』, March 23, 2016.
Curator, National Folk Museum of Korea