You down with OPG? Why I break a trashy taboo.

Othe People's Garbage

“You’d better wash your hands after.”

My boyfriend has caught me acting trashy again.

I was snatching a wayward plastic cup from the sand after a surf. He, clearly, questioning our relationship.

He doesn’t love it when I touch Other People’s Garbage.

There is taboo attached to picking up someone else’s garbage. Oddly, more so than around the act of using a cup once and discarding it.

What I don’t bother explaining to him anymore, is that while this piece is someone else’s, it might as well be mine. I’ve made my share of trashy bits in my short life.

We’re all responsible when trash ends up on the beach.

It’d be easy to blame the volume of debris I find on run of the mill litterbugs or a handful of bad people. But there is too much of it. Gyres-full.

We’re all responsible.

Before it was trash and ewww, it was probably useful and convenient. It was a quick way to get a slushie without having to bring our own cup and reusable straw. An easy way to pack food to put in a pocket for a day on the slopes. A way to save time on cleanup after the party. Maybe it was your toothbrush.


Even if we don’t willfully throw things into the ocean, that’s somehow where a good proportion ends up.

It’s the flyaways that escape from the top of the overstuffed bin. It’s the random objects that fall out of car doors. The hat that blew into the ocean when the Southerly howled through. It’s the fin I snapped on a rock in Punta Mita and never could find. Anything in a storm drain’s path. So many ways. 

Much grosser things are in store for garbage that we don’t pick up.

Something else I think to say aloud, but don’t, is that touching Other People’s Garbage with my bare hands is probably slightly better than swimming through it face first, and far better than eventually eating it after it disintegrates, gets ingested by a fish, and swims through the food chain to end up on my dinner plate.

ocean trash
What’s for dinner?

Maybe worse – the fish doesn’t make it as far as my plate, because it died of starvation after feeding on bulky, yet nutritionally empty pieces of plastic.

Opting out of single use can feel like swimming upstream.

Our culture loves the convenience of ‘single use’, making it feel inconvenient to opt-out of this cycle. I know this because these days I try to live with the philosophy of Zero Waste.

This means I try to create as little unrecoverable waste as possible while living life normally in ever other way. I refuse, reuse, reduce, recycle and compost before I will resort to throwing something ‘away’.

I’m by no means always successful in avoiding the plastics, the packaging, and the unrecyclables. I have not achieved the elusive zero in Zero Waste.

Zero Waste is a practice, not a destination.

I recommit to it each day, and each time I go to the beach.

As part of my practice, I’ll keep picking up those reminders of my own trashy past – I’ll keep picking up Other People’s Garbage. Because whether or not it’s yours or mine or someone else’s, litter is an invaluable and tangible reminder that throwaway culture is a pile of rubbish.

As for my boyfriend? His protests are getting weaker all the time. And he wouldn’t tell you this himself, but I’ve seen him getting down with OPG. 

Waste = food

All living things produce waste.

Within a system in equilibrium, the waste from one process provides food, or fuel, for another. Nature is the ultimate recycler.

Waste = food.

This is the simple logic that underpins the philosophy of Zero Waste.

Through the lens of Zero Waste, the issue of waste isn’t so much that people produce it at all, but that we produce so darn much of it, and in such a manner that it resists reabsorption into the natural cycle.

So while humankind has forever thrown things away, it’s only recently that this detritus has become synonymous with trash, garbage, or landfill.

Garbage is a design problem.

When we can’t recover waste materials, and they become garbage – that is, they become un-useful for anything else – it’s because of bad design.

We either designed a product with the expectation it would end up in landfill (and we were okay with that) or we simply didn’t consider its end of life at all.

Garbage often happens when products are:

  • made with hazardous materials.
  • made of more materials than necessary.
  • made of materials that are not easily recycled.
  • made of a combination of materials that are difficult to separate.
  • difficult to repair.
  • designed for single use.
  • unnecessary.

There are ways to tackle these issues:

  • design with the end of life waste product in mind.
  • use materials that generate useful waste and eliminate the rest.
  • find ways to use the waste that already exists within the system.
  • design products for long term use or reuse.
  • use the least amount of resources possible.

Truly sophisticated design will bring us closer to the natural cycle from which we’ve become disconnected. ‘Send to landfill’ isn’t a plan anymore.