More Than Rubbish

Every city has its trash can—a forgotten object of design


The dirty, the broken, and the unwanted — the trash can shelters everything a city discards.

Yet, even in this object of singular function one finds a diversity of designs across different cities. From the grounded basketball hoops of New York to the bongo-like drums of Mexico, or the lean baskets of Havana to the stout barrels of Singapore, these different trash can designs contain not just a city’s rubbish, but clues to its culture too.

The typical perforated trash can of New York mimics the gridded streets of the city which it sits on. Contained within is the raw energy and grit of this concrete jungle. Everything is on display: the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’re never sure what you’ll find in the mix that threatens to fly out of the forest green can’s open top or seep through its metallic porous sides. But such openness is what defines New York—a lightly framed cradle unashamed of what it takes in or gives out.

In contrast, Singapore’s commonly found trash bin is a capsule that not just contains, but encloses. This controlled environment is managed by two side openings only large enough for trash to enter but not escape. What is discarded is never given a second look or life: things drop into a large black plastic bag to be condemned into a single unit of measure: rubbish. This homogeneity of trash—and the city—is echoed by the bins’ plastic opaque shells, which protect and project (in green) the government’s efforts to market Singapore as a clean and green city.

More than just symbols of a city, trash cans are also street signs of its refuse collection systems. These temporary repositories come in different sizes and shapes that reflect the peculiarities of a city’s castaways and what happens to them after. While New York’s cans are light enough for cleaners to manually haul its contents into a garbage truck, those in Singapore require the extra step off bagging before disposal instead. But both cities have larger trash cans and in greater numbers than in lesser developed places—a sign of how wasteful modern urban life is with its individualised products often wrapped up in layers of packaging.

Despite their ubiquity and multifaceted designs, trash cans are overshadowed by skyscrapers and glitzy creations as design icons of a city. The myopia of modern design recognizes only the creations of celebrity designers or things that look out-of-the-box as “design”. While these tower over urban dwellers as the exclusive domain of a few, objects like trash cans are on their knees offering an everyday service to all.

Such humility and accessibility are lessons for the world of design. After all, trash cans hold the excesses of a city consumed by the “designer” and the “designed.” What we call rubbish is mostly the remnants of failed or unnecessary design—and the trash can is our convenient solution to forget and ignore the problems it is creating for the city.

An essay written for Cubes Magazine Issue #69 (July/August 2014).

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