I smelled our destination before I saw it. The overpowering stench of decay clawed its way through my nostrils and down my throat, and I suppressed the urge to gag. Teeming piles of waste formed their own unnatural landscape, following the curves of the densely forested mountains behind them. The sun carved thousands of shadows across the landfill and cast a golden glow on every surface, from discarded TV sets and old tires to the men and women sorting through them. I found myself uncomfortably reminded of the bottom feeders we’d learned about in my biology class—except these were human beings.
While visiting my family’s hometown as a child, I had watched with a kind of horrified fascination as people wandered the streets, gathering trash from the streets to add to massive piles on their backs. Thus, when applications for the William Welles Award, which provides selected Third and Fourth Form students a stipend of up to $3000 for a summer project, rolled out in my Fourth form year, I seized the chance to explore both my initial curiosity and my passion for sustainability. I submitted a proposal to document the lives of Chinese waste pickers through my art and was ecstatic to learn that I, along with 11 other Fourth Formers had received the award.
As my nausea dissipated, guilt quickly took its place. It was one thing to hear about the millions of tons of waste the U.S. was exporting to China, but quite another to stand in it. The attempts I’d made to restrict my own consumption seemed naïve and inadequate. I approached a nearby worker, bracing to address someone I’d burdened with a problem for which I was responsible. To my astonishment, the woman scurried away with a look of terror on her face. No one had ever been afraid of me before.
After returning home, I found myself at a loss. It had been easy to deliver a firm assessment of the situation from my neutral position thousands of miles away. Having spoken directly to the waste pickers and witnessed firsthand the invisible processes behind China’s waste management, I could no longer ignore the reality that an entire economic ecosystem had developed in the wake of our mass overconsumption. Solving plastic pollution, while of critical importance, may introduce new and complex problems.
But throughout my interviews at the landfill and on the streets of Fuzhou, I had encountered a quality of the human spirit that will be key to finding an enduring solution—resilience. I had seen devastating conditions that summer, but I had also seen people finding a way to make something out of nothing.
The Welles Award gave me the opportunity to explore and deepen my interests in art and sustainability in a way that I never could have imagined, and I am beyond grateful for the lessons it has taught me.