Interview with Mara McPartland
M: How did you become interested in creating this project?
J: My plan is in photography and environmental studies, and throughout my plan meetings my committee encouraged me to combine the two, to use photography to make a statement. I became interested in waste management because I think that people have some desire to make better decisions about waste and recycling, but that they don’t understand the reality of what happens to their waste. Things don’t disappear the way that we perceive them to. My idea for this project was to track and document the afterlife of the college’s waste.
M: How did do your project, or what was your process?
J: I worked with the college facilities management, and with Tam, our regional waste management company. First I went with them on their route, to see where they collect garbage from the area, and to see what people were consuming. It is a single-stream system, so garbage and recycling go in together and then get sorted into different materials. I went with them to see the trash get sorted. It was interesting to see what gets thrown out by students. There were copies of the New York Times magazine, and a lot of beer and wine bottle and old essays… A lot of what gets put in the recycling is actually not recyclable. Sometimes I think that just having recycling bins right next to trash cans lets people be lazy; they don’t make any substantial effort to make sure the right things get put in, and that they are clean.
Over field work term I was in New York City, and I went to the Metropolitan Paper Recycling facility in Brooklyn. It is where the paper from the school is shipped after it is sorted to be made into post-consumer recycled material. The facility is open 24 hours a day, with people standing along a conveyor belt and sorting materials. It was interesting to talk to them. Apparently they can gauge how the economy is doing based on the levels of garbage, and what is thrown away. Basically, when the economy is doing better, there will be a lot more discarded.
Finally, I visited a landfill in Vermont, where non-recyclable materials are buried, and documented that as well. The landfill was only 12,000 square feet large, which is relatively small, and within the coming year they were going to reach capacity and have to close. It was cool because they harvested methane, another by-product of our waste, and re-sold it to households in the region.
M: Do you plan on doing any more work that is related to this project?
J: Not specifically. I would be interested in continuing to document post-consumer materials. For example, a lot of recyclable material gets shipped overseas to be processed and made into new products and then shipped back and sold again in the United States because it is cheaper than doing it here. It would be interesting to document this process as well.