Trash Talk

“None of my friends were surprised that I devoted my life to trash.”

Dr. Christa McDermott

A hodgepodge interest is my favorite kind. I feel my own work and interest is a hodgepodge of language, garbage, compulsion and how following them changes our relationships to objects and others, textiles, craft processes, sensationalizing, serving, and question asking, among other things. I get excited when I see people doing work that feels unprecedented in its specificity yet vital in its nicheness and connected to so many topics in previously unexamined ways. I get especially excited when the work touches on topics that compel me, but exists in the world of research and science, which feels so outside of my own realm. When I read Dr. Christa McDermott’s bio on PSU’s website that mentions the environment, women’s studies, and the “emotional relationships with possessions, how we construct identities through consumption, and hoarding,” I was enthralled and knew I wanted to talk to her. Our conversation was just as rich and varied as I had hoped and inspired me to think in new ways about trash, responsibility, community, and equity.

Photo from Dr. Christa McDermott’s personal collection of trash from around the world.
Evora, Portugal.

Caryn Aasness: To start, would you tell me a little about yourself and what it is that you do?

Dr. Christa McDermott: Sure, My name’s Christa. My background is in psychology and social psychology, my specific degree is Personality and Social Context, and I have a degree in women’s studies so I’ve always had this weird hodgepodge thing, because I’m interested in that and I apply it to recycling [laughs]. I went into psychology and women’s studies with my interest in environmental stewardship of objects and my own personal interest: I’m the person who pulls things out of the trash, have been since high school. None of my friends were surprised that I devoted my life to trash [laughs]. I take pictures of trash on vacation, I take pictures of people’s recycling bins. But I’ve always been interested in the people aspect of it, how we display our identities or understand ourselves through the things we own or want to buy, and the tie-in to capitalism and the fact that our economy runs on consumption and so, of course, we’re oriented to express our psychology through our stuff. I don’t think this is explored a lot in psychology outside of marketing and trying to sell people things. So I was particularly interested in terms of gender studies; consumption has always been tied more to women and women’s identity, like shopping, caring for things, and maintaining them is much more of women’s labor burden. Our relationships to things are also gendered. As a grad student, I made up a course that I taught called the Sex of Things. I’m just trying to lay out the relationship, the genderedness of our consumption. 

Photo from Dr. Christa McDermott’s personal collection of trash from around the world.
Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. “The ‘trash to energy’ label is deceptive marketing.
It is meant to make people feel better about throwing
out materials that will be incinerated.” Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

In graduate school you have more opportunity to explore what you want to do. At that time, the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were really influential to me and all of his ideas around different kinds of capital and social capital. And he’s got one book [Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste] where he did a survey of a bunch of different French people of different backgrounds about the kinds of things that they liked or had in their home. So, he’d ask, Do you like this painting? One painting is boats with rope on it, and another is ballerinas or different things. He did this with a very large sample of people and showed that people’s tastes are not as unique as they think, and they’re very much tied to their social class identities. Things that we feel are very much our own personal preferences are very socially constructed, and it’s not that we don’t have our own personal preferences, but I think we really underestimate how much they’re influenced by our social structures and things like our affinities towards other people who are like us, or our desire to make ourselves dissimilar to other people that we don’t want to be like. 

But then, as I actually try to do work in this area, it’s not easy. All the things I’m talking about I rarely get to actually do. It depends on funding in the world, and much more prosaic things. So I’ve spent a lot of time doing energy efficiency work. Right now, the work I do at PSU is around recycling. It’s what other people are willing to work with you on or pay you for. I try to bring my lens, the social structure lens to that work, especially in recycling, people are obsessed about how to get people to sort things differently, and I’m like, that’s not the issue at hand.

Caryn: What is the issue at hand?

Christa: The issue at hand is getting people to use less, reuse more: how do you have social structures that enable people so it’s not just an individual thing? How do you have a society that helps people fix their things? How do you get companies to make things that are fixable? It’s less mechanical and more social. What gaps need to be filled in people’s lives? Right now, what if owning things and shopping and especially turnover of things is what is helping them feel better? Or holding on to things? I’m very interested in hoarding because I see so much good intention in hoarding, but it’s often good intention gone awry. From what we understand, hoarding disorder is mostly driven by anxiety, but there’s different levels of hoardingness, and in a lot of environmentalists, I see a lot of almost-hoarding. We’re all trying to salvage objects and maintain them. That’s something that doesn’t get discussed as much. 

Screenshot from Caryn’s collection of notable Buy Nothing posts, 2022. Portland, Oregon.

Caryn: You mention how lots of this work is tied to institutional support and funding: do you see people doing work that is effective or could be effective, but is outside of that institutional support? 

Christa: Yeah. There’s lots of organizations working on these issues from different angles. I don’t exactly know that I’d say there’s one place where people have a more holistic view. What’s important is the coming together of all these stakeholders around different issues and making sure that you have a whole range of people represented: the activists and the nonprofits. Something that’s been really eye-opening for me is some work I started doing with canners, or waste pickers as they’re called everywhere else in the world. That’s a group that makes you think very differently about the structures around recycling and what it can offer people. I met Taylor Cass-Talbot with WIEGO, [Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing], a global organizing group of women’s informal laborers. She works with waste pickers all around the world and also helped start up a co-op here called Ground Score, a cooperative of canners advocating for their needs. At first, when I thought about canning, I was like, Well, that’s something we just have to phase out, this sounds like a terrible life, people picking through people’s trash, hauling things all around, why are you not just trying to end this? And she’s like, No, this is empowering. This is low barrier, flexible work. People build a community around it, and do you want to know who’s actually making sure most of your recycling is working? It’s the people who are coming through and pulling out the recyclables. And I had a 180. It totally changed my perspective, these folks are crucial to the system of recycling, and yet the system is literally designed to either not include them or to be actively against them. For example, the BottleDrop system [the system in which individuals can redeem recyclable bottles and cans for the refund value, often at grocery stores or dedicated recycling centers] was not designed for them at all. It’s not designed for people with hundreds of cans. There’s actually a limit on what you can bring in and grocery stores don’t want to deal with them. Canners experience a lot of stigma and prejudice. So they mobilized something called the People’s Depot where canners can drop off large quantities– it’s run by canners so they also aren’t experiencing discrimination and stigma and being hassled and looked down upon. It’s been eye opening to see the community around it and that social structure aspect of people being able to support each other. I find waste picking to be a really rich place for thinking about how we handle materials. These are people who know how to fix a lot of things or want things to be more fixable. They pick up all different materials for resale. People are finding ways to get by in a way that fits them better than the typical system even though maybe Waste Management isn’t going to hire them to drive a truck. 

Trash at the 2017 solar eclipse gathering, from Dr. Christa McDermott’s personal collection
of trash from around the world. Madras, Oregon. 2017.

Caryn: What do you think is the best way for an individual to get involved or make an impact?

Christa: I’m a big believer in advocating for structural change. A lot of folks are very passionate about zero waste, and it’s individual behavior based, right? Which I mean, I engage in a lot of that as well. I’m constantly sorting all my special recycling, all my little caps, even though I know deep down that this is not really helping. But I also work on these other things at a larger structural level. So if someone has this interest, I say engage in structural advocacy.

I’ll give one example of how I found my way into this. After graduate school, I moved to California, back to Berkeley. There was this group there that combined meditation and environmental activism all around waste [Green Sangha], they were really great. We met about once a month, there was meditation and then a talk about plastic pollution, for example, and what we can do about it. We did some activism, writing old school letters. There was a guy who was like a little Al Gore, going around showing a PowerPoint. Because it was mindfulness based, they weren’t as interested in just looking at why all these things are bad. The PowerPoint had a section that was like, here are all the reasons why we all love plastic or why plastic is great in our lives, this is what it represents and does for us. But we also recognize that it has all these different problems. So it was very much open problem solving. What can we all do to reduce these impacts in our lives? Mostly, we need corporations to change their practices or to lobby legislature to make a different policy. So I’d look for those kinds of groups. I find them to be the most helpful.

Oregon coast recycling center, from Dr. Christa McDermott’s personal collection
of trash from around the world. Oregon.

Caryn: The group you run on campus is doing things that students can get involved in, right? Can you talk a little more about that work?

Christa: Yes, I run CES, Community Environmental Services, at Portland State. It’s different from the SSC, the Student Sustainability Center. We are entirely off-campus oriented. So all my staff are students— not everyone has a huge passion for trash but I’d say 90% of them do. We do a lot of technical assistance for local projects. Right now one of our big projects is for Metro Regional Government. They are replacing the decals on cans in multifamily housing and providing signs to update multifamily enclosures with clear signage. The reason why Metro is investing so much in this is because multifamily housing has had inadequate recycling and trash services— it is an equity issue. The whole reason CES got started was actually out of a student project around improving recycling in multifamily housing, because the recycling of multifamily housing has always been lower than in single family housing and the rhetoric around it is that those people don’t care. It’s impossible to reach out to people in apartments, it’s just easier for them to throw everything out, blah blah blah. And we’ve shown for more than 30 years that actually all the services and the structures in multifamily housing are inadequate and they’re not on par with those in single family housing where you have your own little cart, a weekly service, a newsletter from the city, if you live in Portland. It’s just so much harder in multifamily housing to access that. So Metro is invested, I feel like they’ve really stepped up their efforts. So even though we are putting decals on trash cans, it actually has an equity component. It’s meant to be a step towards making services equitable for all residents, whether you live in your own single family property or an apartment. So we do that kind of work and other kinds of work.

Trash and redeemable container collection bins from Dr. Christa McDermott’s personal
collection of trash from around the world. Hawaii.

Caryn: That’s interesting. How would you say the public perception of environmental issues and the role of waste has changed in the time you have been doing this work?

Christa: Well for people who are environmentally-minded and have always been pro-recycling, unfortunately, and I feel like this is constant, there’s been a lack of trust and if anything we’ve seen trust go down in the recycling system. It’s totally understandable that people think, why am I bothering doing all this? I think amongst certain groups, there’s more of an acknowledgment that all of the stuff is a problem, and there’s a cycle of popular news stories that say we’re drowning in our stuff. But to a lot of people, the abundance of things is just seen as a good thing, like how can we get more things to people to improve their quality of life? I don’t know if you want to specifically talk about hoarding. I think there’s been a shift in our understanding around hoarding. I have an interest in it, but I don’t have a clinical psychology background. There’s a really great group in the area called the Multnomah County Hoarding Task Force, who started up a series of workshops for the public and also do a lot of training for social workers called Buried in Treasures. There’s a total disconnect with the environmental side. So for one, hoarding disorder is mostly driven by anxiety and depression. So even though these workshops are about the problem of the stuff, the stuff is a symptom, and the real treatment needed is around helping people with their anxiety and depression, often after a loss, wanting to connect with loved ones through their things and the anxiety that comes from separating from things. So I wanted to work with that group because for some of the people, a lot of their rationale is that they want to see their things go to a good home, and I think that’s my own personal rationale for a lot of my stuff that I have too much of but can’t let go of, I just have more appropriate space and bins to put it in. It’s not squalor. Something I learned from them was that people can live in squalor, which means living in an unhealthy situation, and not have hoarding disorder. They might have executive functioning problems and they’re accumulating trash. You could also have an extensive hoarding disorder and not live in squalor, most often if you have a big enough house or more resources. People want to see their things have a life. It’s hard to think that someone else doesn’t value them or that someone can’t use them. They’re very wary of donating them to Goodwill feeling like they’re just gonna be thrown out. I just see a lot of similarities in the impulse of that with environmentalists who are trying to save or recycle for the same reasons. So I wanted to bring that into it and also maybe do some sorting and categorizing peoples’ stuff to understand what it is that causes the most problems, but that group is still very social work focused and all about delivering treatment around anxiety and the public service implementation aspect and the greater need for access to services. There are the more urgent needs and my more esoteric questions around environmental motivations aren’t as pressing. But they’re an interesting, good group. They regularly have these workshops and trainings. I hold out hope that there could be some potential overlap. 

Caryn: Yeah, that is really interesting, especially because, like you’re saying, there’s so many different elements that feed into it.

Christa: It’s a way of coping. Who are we to take away people’s ways of coping? We’re all trying to find ways to cope in the world that are hopefully more adaptive than maladaptive.

Multifamily housing enclosure, from Dr. Christa McDermott’s personal
collection of trash from around the world. Portland, Oregon.

Caryn: I like to ask everyone, is there anything that you collect?

Christa: I’m the processor for my community. I live in a cohousing community, and even before I lived in cohousing I did this, but if someone needs something funneled out to the community, I am your person. I deal with it and put it on my porch until someone picks it up. I don’t know if I have something specific I collect. I definitely have my own small collection of pictures of trash can and recycling bin setups all around the world. I don’t necessarily collect a set thing, but I’m always shepherding.

Screenshot from Caryn’s collection of notable Buy Nothing posts, 2022. Portland, Oregon.

Caryn: That kind of leads into another question that I have. You mentioned people are often wary of recycling or wary of sending something to Goodwill that might just get thrown out, what are your personal best practices around getting rid of something?

Christa: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the local Buy Nothing groups like on Facebook. Have you used them?

Caryn: I haven’t used the Facebook ones, but I have the app and it’s great. I get all kinds of stuff from there, and give away all kinds of stuff.

Christa:  One nice thing with the Facebook group, that’s also sometimes frustrating, but understandable, is you have to live in certain neighborhood boundaries to join a given group, so it really keeps it local. I also have big questions and would love to do some research on what happens to things from Buy Nothing? I don’t care if people resell things, more power to them. Some people get very upset about that. But I also wonder how much of it is being hoarded. For some people, the accumulation part of hoarding disorder is what speaks to them. 

In the Portland area, we have so many phenomenal reuse groups. I moved here from the East Coast. I love the infrastructure here that’s not governmental. Like the Rebuilding Center, which has a new director and is really moving in a great direction, Community Warehouse, and all the local thrift stores. I live near Take it or Leave It, where you can consign things. There are so many baby goods stores, all the vintage shops. Or Free Geek for any kind of e-waste. Then my last resort is usually bringing things to Goodwill. I feel like they’re better than some (donation organizations). There are some groups like Veterans for America that will come and pick up your things, so people like that a lot, but they’re just selling things to secondary markets. So that all of our junk is being dumped on the Global South and destroying their clothing markets, and for the business it’s a revenue source. Whereas others like Goodwill, they sell things more locally, though they get so much more stuff, more than they could ever, ever sell locally. But we have a lot of really small local nonprofits that I think are really phenomenal. So that’s my hierarchy. 

Caryn: Yeah, thank you. Are there any other recommendations you have, books to read, films to watch, things to listen to, or places to go, to wrap up?

Nikki S. Lee: The Seniors Project (19), 1999, C-print.

Christa: One of my all time favorite books, if I ever am on campus, you could borrow my book, is Projects by Nikki Lee, a Korean artist, and she transforms herself. It’s fascinating to see how the way someone looks can change how we understand them. So much is based on the things that they put on themselves or have around them. In terms of other more practical things, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, I really appreciate how they think about the community’s own consumption and the ties between production and consumption. I also listen to a million podcasts. The podcast Drilled I think is a really excellent look at the oil industry and how it’s pushing for plastics as a way to save itself. They’re pivoting from making fuel to (making) stuff.

Reusable container collection integrated into trash/recycling bins on
Oregon State University campus, from Dr. Christa McDermott’s personal collection
of trash from around the world. Oregon.

Caryn: Thank you so much for talking with me! Do you have any lingering thoughts to share?

Christa: I’m always interested in questions like, how have we gotten to this place? How are we going to move away from it? I live in cohousing, and part of the appeal of it is thinking about how much do we share? I would love to do a study, though my neighbors have not agreed to it, or I haven’t asked [laughs]. Are we reducing our consumption by living in this more shared setting? It’s a whole larger ecosystem and there are lots of different consequences of reconfiguring our structures in this way.

Dr. Christa McDermott (she/her) is a social psychologist whose work focuses on reducing consumption of resources, re-using more, using a lifecycle approach to sustainable materials management, and improving social equity and environmental health through waste prevention. She has served as a fellow in the U.S. Senate, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Energy on projects that ranged from climate change policy to toxics to energy efficiency. She holds a joint Ph.D. in Psychology and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan where she conducted research on the relationship between personality and environmental attitudes and behaviors and has a special interest in our emotional relationships with possessions, how we construct identities through consumption, and hoarding.

Caryn Aasness (they/them) is an artist living in Portland Oregon. Caryn can be found climbing into dumpsters and pulling over to see discarded items on curbs and in alleys. Their first SoFA interview, Abandonment Issues, with their dad Jon Aasness, covered similar topics from a different angle and can be read here. You can find more of their work here.

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