A Historical Timeline for Trash

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The ever changing timeline of trash – how as humans the types and amounts of things we use and throw away has changed is a fascinating topic. Not least for our Arrow Heights Elementary Grade Five and Six students, as we got to spend our lesson time travelling, diving into the timeline of trash that has existed long before us, all the way to the present day.

From early hominids, two hundred thousands years ago, ditching their shell and bone fragments, but little else, caring for every natural commodity with exceptional awareness of the energy needed to find new fur for clothing or bone for tools, as they seasonally migrated on to chase new food and water resources elsewhere, to the ‘created for the can’ single use products of modern days, materials that are incredibly difficult to recycle, reuse and are purposely designed that way,  to make you use more. To buy more. To throw more away.

It’s so strange that we used to value things more, even when people had so much less, and fewer options – now we just throw stuff away without a seconds thought.

Grade 6 student – Arrow Heights Elementary

It’s so challenging that the economy has dictated our direction for too long – to make money, to value the things above their potential impact on the world around us. Whilst our ever increasingly complex society not only creates new products and therefore waste, it has the accumulative waste of all the previous times before it, a world drowning in the waste not as easily burned or tossed to the ocean or transported far away as was popular over the last decades. For it seems the ocean is revolting against its trashy diet of plastics washed in from inconsiderate waste disposal, and now it sends this mess back, giant floating islands of trash washing up on the shores of paradise resorts no longer able to be marketed as such.

That all seems so far away in Interior BC, but what isn’t far away is the cool flowing waters of the Columbia or ‘Swift River’ to the Sinixt, Chickadee for the Ktunaxa First Nations. This river, alongside the Illecillewaet and Jordan sweep past our school and community carrying its load 2000 km to the outlet in Washington State in America. Anything that washes in or off from our home, anything we flush away or throw away could end up travelling not just through time, but space, into the water and out into the ecosystems and habitats of so many other animals, plants and fish.

As a class we examined the changing trends of waste production from this early society through time watching as increasing amounts of wealth and prosperity hindered the surficial beauty and success of two thousand years ago – the Ancient Greeks – and their need to produce the first anti-littering laws to mitigate the stink of human excrement being thrown from the stunning marble architecture into the streets below.

Moving forward into the industrial revolution, only two hundred years ago, learning of the huge technological advances that changed the materials we could access and utilise to produce things, the invention of machines to do the making all the more quickly, but the sting of cost in that production that ensured that every last material was used, treasured, maximised. 

Fast forward to now. We know how to make, to produce, to dig oil, to melt rock to create whatever we want and all with the arrogance to think we can continue to do it, to steal and break apart Mother Earth without consequence. And then the Earth revolts, the fish, animals, the plants begin to die or are missing, the land slides away as it misses its tree, the climate changes, the prices go up, the poor countries far away no longer want our waste. They are full. The holes in our ground fill up with the stuff we desperately needed last week, the precious metals, encased in a tube of plastic some far away tech company is not bothered to take back from you pile up. The microplastics are everywhere. In our animals bellies, in our water supply and now our bloodstreams.

And all through time, this weight, ever growing from zero kilograms produced to today’s amount, 2.1kg on average thrown away by every Canadian each day. WASTE. Things that create the kinds of thoughts and feelings expressed by students on their thought board.

The students loved and laughed at dressing up through time, at thinking how it once was before we knew how to transform oil, created deep underground over millions of years from the detritus of dead things, into ten minute products that bring a modicum of joy but are quickly forgotten.

This lesson was silly, and funny and serious all at the same time. It challenged us to think about how we act as a society and what the future timeline might be if we don’t think about the way we care for our planet’s resources and how much we throw away.

‘We need to share with the people that make decisions how much what they do is impacting how we feel now, and what the future may hold for us’ one student shared.

Let’s hope if we travelled forward in time we would see the technological advances lean towards responsible and sustainable products and methods – with the passion and determination I see in these students I have faith it WILL come to pass.