Mauricio Mayorga and his Clean Garbage Project

Mauricio Mayorga, a Colombian artist, loves sand, the beach, the ocean and the sea (all beaches, all oceans and all seas).  Many of his paintings reflect the movement and color of water and he spends a lot of his creative time painting in the tropical Colombian Caribbean.  Somewhat alarmingly and impactfully 8 years ago, Mayorga found himself walking along the beach in Santa Marta, Colombia and being mentally lightning struck by the amount of garbage washing and washed up on shore.  It was a life altering moment.

Mayorga began to think about the everyday objects that he found on the beach and of the amount of effort it took to produce even one small piece of garbage, a bottle cap for example: the design of the product (the bottle cap), the procurement of raw materials somewhere in the world for the same product, the manufacture of the product, the shipping of said product, the sale of the product, the consumption of most probably in this case the drink within the product (bottle and bottle cap), and finally the dumping somehow into the ocean of aforementioned objects.  End of cycle.

This cannot be the end, Mayorga thought.  By then a well-known artist, Mayorga became consumed by the irrational waste we live by.  Ultimately, garbage and waste became his driving passion leading him to imagine ways in which he could use his experience as an artist and his background in business to influence those around him to reassess their actual product needs and to reevaluate their personal responsibility in terms of waste generated daily.

The word garbage has been with us since the Middle Ages, but in centuries past, not much at all was thrown away – we discarded ashes and bones and not a whole lot else (it was a simpler time); there was far less disposible income back then and people were somewhat genius in finding new uses for old and used materials.  In fact, the guarding of household resources continued in many parts of the world well into the middle of the 20th century; think recycled clothing (handed down, patched, or used as rags) and reused milk or soda bottles in the our own not so distant past.

But, with the invention of plastic, consumption began to creep into our lives in the late 1800’s, and all hell broke loose, so to speak in terms of disposible containers, in the 1950’s with the invention of Saranwrap in 1953 and Styrofoam in 1954.  It is interesting to remember that plastic shopping bags have been in use worldwide only since the 1960’s, a relatively young phenomenon (thank Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin).

In recent decades, we have only found more and more uses for single-use products: we love our sugar or sugarfree drinks in plastic bottles and we want our shampoos and shower gels in a variety of plastic phials.  Our laundry rooms wouldn’t be our laundry rooms without our detergents and fabric softeners in hard plastic packaging, nor would our under-sink kitchen cupboards be our under-sink kitchen cupboards without a gazillion varieties of cleaning products ensconced in their very own plastic enclosures.

Fast forward to the power of 1.  Mauricio Mayorga, after his moment of enlightenment on the Santa Marta beach, decided to be an interventionist.  He wanted (and wants) no less than that you and I question our definition of garbage.  Mayorga has always shrunk away from an emphasis on recyling (not that he doesn’t believe in it by any means), but he wants us to concentrate more seriously about what it is we are willing to use and throw away, about what we consider valueless – garbage.  For Mayorga, there is a black hole in our mind-set as to where our one-time products end up and that location is well off the map and well away from our everyday reality. We dump stuff, and where it goes is someone else’s problem. It washes up on the Santa Marta coastline? It could be. And whose problem is that?

Mayorga began his garbage educational work, his Clean Garbage Project, with elementary and high school students in Colombia because he believes that children hold the answers to our definition of garbage going forward. He is sure that if children learn to question the idea of disposible garbage, they will then influence their parents to do the same. But Mayorga doesn’t stop at schools. So far, he has presented his interventions, (garbage-based happenings, seminars, and get-togethers for community rethinking) at more then 100 locations. At botanical gardens, at ecological conferences, at universties, in museums, in art galleries, and basically anywhere he can both in and out of Colombia, Mayorga encourages participants to contribute garbage, cleaned and ready for reuse. Then, Mayorga playfully stokes participants to think about the product in their hands and he encourages creative reuse of materials that may at first seem expendable.So far, Mayorga estimates that he has presented personal challenges to more then 30,000 participants. And if only 1 in 10 participants takes control of his/her reality in terms of garbage, Mayorga declares himself happy.

One of Mayorga’s most interesting projects so far has been his proposal to the UN that Garbage become a school subject worldwide. He feels that the UN should be front and center in the fight against unnecessary waste. Mayorga’s proposal is ambitious to say the least: however, for one moment just imagine that the UN picks up on Mayorga’s proposal, and that let’s say that 10 years from now school curricula around the world might include an investigation of the defintion of garbage as required study. How revolutionary would that be!  The power of 1.