Holiday ornament designed to look like an empty plastic Starbucks cup.
I saw a woman on the corner of State and Monroe. She was trying to throw her empty Starbucks cup into one of Chicago's solar powered trash compactor bins. They have handles that you have to pull down far enough toward yourself to throw the trash in and she was on her phone with her hands full of shopping bags. Normally I would assist someone in a circumstance like this, and that was my impulse. But then I thought, why help someone throw something away? She got the cup for convenience so I’ll observe her in a state of inconvenience. I watched as she tried three times to open the bin, dropped the cup once and made a "yuck" face when she finally succeeded in tossing the cup away from her. It was as if it hadn't contained a drink she had paid for and enjoyed only a few minutes earlier. I wondered if the difficulty of ridding herself of this object made her aware of it's materiality, or herself, or anything at all. Did hearing it hit the pavement and needing to shift her body and extend her arm to pick it up make her conscious of how the cup is dictating her movement and decisions? She made the choice to purchase the coffee because of desire for a hot drink or the energy boost the caffeine might bring, or perhaps because she desired routine, maybe all those reasons. In the decision to purchase the coffee, to hand money away from herself or have it invisibly withdrawn from her bank account in exchange for the coffee, she most likely only thought about the coffee not what the coffee brings with it, the paper cup, the plastic lid, the cardboard sleeve, the plastic stirrer. These things only manifest themselves after the coffee is gone. Suddenly she is holding an empty vessel, and this must be away from her. Is it not hers? Is it not her responsibility? Did her money not pay for it to be in her hand? Or is it the responsibility of the coffee shop she purchased it from? It was the company’s choice to order the disposable cups, lids, sleeves, and stirrers.  Or is it the manufacturer’s responsibility for creating disposable products? What about the marketing and design team that chose a disposable green plastic straw to signify Starbucks? It seems simultaneously not anyone's and yet everyone's responsibility. Cups are ricocheting off the edges of trashbins everywhere, being trampled underfoot, mingling dirty and forgotten among blades of grass until eventually carted  to an unseen, ever expanding landfill.

I wrote this in the spring of 2017. Since then I have been thinking a lot about why we discard and why we want parts of things that we once valued to be far away from our bodies once we have exhausted their [decided] use. These two passages felt especially relevant.

"It is our specific affective relationship to an object that makes it "waste" in the first place. Once desire has been squeezed out of it, we're left with the waste products of those desires. The thing loses it's thingness and becomes something to eliminate. It is as if the real dread we feel about our own waste is not its undesirable and ignoble putrescence, but the creeping fear that its unwanted proximity to us somehow threatens to erase or disturb our very sense of ourselves as discrete bodies" Brian Thill. Waste. 2015.

"What matters is that through this daily gesture [taking out the trash] I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough or chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely (without residues) with what I am and have. Only by throwing something away can I be sure that something of myself has not yet been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future." Italo Calvino. La Poubelle Agréée. 1977.

We want to appear vital, living, free, important. We can't have emptied, torn, dirtied containers and wrappings that tell of our animal existence and mortality visible in our personal space. We want to be in control of what surrounds our immediate bodies. We want the power to walk empty handed into a Starbucks, swipe a piece of plastic in exchange for a hot beverage, a momentary indulgence that we can enjoy while walking down a chilly Chicago street, then have the ability to get rid of the physical evidence of that consumption by utilizing a public waste disposal system designed to be as convenient and invisible as possible. This is glamourous. The alternative - carrying a reusable coffee mug at all times - is not. It entails convincing the barista that your mug is in fact the correct size you want to pay for and maybe trying to get them to make you a latte in it but they're hesitant to take it behind the counter for sanitary reasons, or they say yes, then make it in a paper cup and pour it to your mug while you give a pained smile and say thanks because you can't expect everyone to read your mind.  Walking down the street the reusable mug is heavy in contrast to the feel of a lightweight paper cup and plastic lid. A disposable coffee cup tells everyone you have better things to do. It says you're important and your time is valuable and you can afford this luxury at the expense of so many things. It's a desirable feeling. But now your own reusable mug is empty and you're holding a heavy object lined with liquid film. It's a leaky vessel you will carry until you can rinse it out and then properly wash it before repeating the cycle again. It's cumbersome and doesn't feel worth it. It certainly takes time. A waste of time are the words some might use. It's always a matter of waste.