Garbage can be described in different ways – as anything that is no longer useful, pleasing to the eye, or just a reminiscent of something that used to be. Or anything that we don’t want to see anymore. And Jiří, Prague garbageman for thirteen years, has seen it all - food, paper, porcelain dinner sets, functioning electronics, unopened presents. Too much, according to the garbagemen. The question is, what can be done about it.
Early in the morning dark streets are illuminated by the orange flashing light from the garbage truck. It might be quiet and cold outside, but inside the truck air is warm and radio is playing upbeat music.
Jiří and three of his colleagues have enthusiasm and energy of a morning show radio hosts, joking about weather, snow or future plans. Roman for example, garbageman for twenty years, buys lottery tickets. “Next year, I am going to win,” he says planning early retirement. In case he doesn’t, he will keep his job. “There will always be garbage,” he predicts.
Garbagemen enjoy the company, since their job falls very quickly into stereotype. Procedure is always same – short ride to the selected street, unlocking the doors, taking out trashcans, returning it and locking the doors. Repeated over and over again. While at the first, you carefully examine weight of each trashcan and assess the number of plastic bags thrown beside them, after just few hours you stop paying attention. Maybe this is the reason why all of them answer “not really” to whether looking at the waste every day changed their attitude towards it and made them more eco-wise.
More questions reveal that there nonetheless might be some effect. All of the garbageman recycle rigorously and they don’t like using plastic bags – which trashcans are filled with – while shopping. Jiří even recalls one occasion in which he stopped his car and notified a stranger that he is putting his trash in wrong recycling trashcan.
Still, skepticism is high and garbageman say that looking at the overfilled trash cans brings them certainty that people are wasting food and things, but not much else. Few kilometers away, group of marketing and communication experts hope the answer is different.
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Ivan Sobička, project leader in Taktiq agency is busy last months. His project of slow television, inspired by the Norwegian hours-long videos of train ride or fireplace, became surprising hit on a Czech internet. Thousands of people watch live streams of planes at the Prague airport or kittens playing in a basket every day.
One of the most important tasks of his team is to decide what will be next. Cute animals and nature in general are almost always a sure bet, but few months ago one of their meetings took a surprising turn. “You should see waste incinerator,” shared one of Sobička’s colleagues his feeling from the recent open day visit of the plant in Prague’s Malešice. “It’s fascinating,” he said.
Doubting but curious team went to the incinerator and found out it indeed was amazing. Huge concrete hall filled with garbage and operated by steel claws had a certain industrial charm and allure of the inaccessibility. At the end of November, camera was installed looking over all the things people didn't want to see anymore. And interesting thing happened.
Prior to the camera, if you wanted to see Prague’s waste in its full extent, you had three options. You could travel to one of the junkyards, wait several months for the Open Day at the Malešice incinerator (where your experience would be enriched by music bands and bouncy castle for the kids) or you could pay one of the agencies that sells experiences as a gift. For around 100 euro you could buy “I am garbage man” experience full with riding a garbage truck. Last year Allegria agency sold 40 of them.
Common to all these solutions is the need for effort or money. Camera streaming for free would be the first test to see whether limited number of voluntary garbagemen was just question of the money or general lack of interest in garbage. Taktiq expected several thousand viewers with the end of broadcast at the beginning of January. But then came the surprise.
Video gained 185 000 viewers and at the end of February, stream is still on. Reactions of public include thank you messages, tons of questions and reactions falling in general category “cool”. There are some complains about stream being boring and incinerator is not even nearly as popular as landing airplanes, but video is popular enough to be still on, weeks after planned halt.
It’s hard to say what exactly is so fascinating about piles of waste being moved by the cranes, but part of the fun seems be in a search game. Mostly it’s impossible to recognize anything specific among the garbage. But occasionally familiar shape pops out. Like a Christmas tree. They are not supposed to be in incinerator and waste management companies ask people every year not to throw them out with regular waste. Noticing this often futile effort, Taktiq decided to put newly found interest of its viewers to good use.
Shortly after Christmas they announced “Search for the Christmas tree” contest. Viewers were supposed to make screenshots of any tree they saw on the broadcast from the incinerator and send them to the production company. Authors of best ones won guided tour of the incinerator itself. Around forty pictures came in and Sobička believes it helped to spread the message about recycling of Christmas trees. But he also believes there can be more to it.
“When you look at something you start to think about it,” he explains. “In this case - it doesn’t matter whether you come to the conclusion that recycling is important or not. You looked and that's the start,” he says. For Sobička seeing and discussing waste is the start of resolving problem with its excess. There is not study or research that would support his theory. Just experiences of few garbagemen that are quite inconclusive.
Still, considering what Roman says, that “there will be always waste”, looking at it closer might not be a bad start.
We would like to thank Pražské služby (psas.cz) for their help with this article.
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