While in L.A., we stopped for lunch at a burrito place that was supposedly well known for their tasty food. I don’t remember how hungry I was when the food arrived at the table. I do remember, however, that when it arrived I was more shocked at how it looked—a lumpy, beige-white mass, sharing the plate with a handful of corn chips and some salsa. It seemed barely edible.
Perhaps it was because the meal repulsed me as food, that I briefly considered it as something else entirely. I saw it as time—more specifically two different times.
The first time, the “time of the meal,” was entirely optimized for speed. Customers order, pay, and seat themselves. The burrito itself is an easy method of packing a lot of simple food into an edible wrapper to quickly dump in one’s stomach. The plates, forks, knives, spoons, napkins, tray liner and cups are all disposable—quickly dumped in a trash can on the way out the door. Within minutes of being served, the meal quickly disappears into customers’ guts and the trash can, with nothing left except, perhaps, a stray drip or two on the table.
It is, after all, fast food.
There is another time, however, that is less visible—the “time of the garbage.” The time of the garbage begins when the meal ends and is vastly disproportional to the time of the meal. While the meal may be gone in minutes, traces of its consumption as trash persist, stretching out on a historical time scale that is generational or perhaps even geologic. The paper napkins may be gone in days or weeks, but the plastic utensils and styrofoam plates will persist in various forms for hundreds or thousands of years.
The speed is desirable to the customer and profitable to the restaurant—sociocultural values that are important at the time of the meal. What can we say about the values of the time of the garbage? If everyone had to carry around their own garbage with them we would immediately see its effects and its burden. As it currently is, however, garbage is not immediately available in social contexts where it can be subject to social and cultural discussion and valuation. Its waste-effects are rendered invisible—the timeframe of their disposal too long.
If only there were a way for customers to not only see the convenience of the fast food, but also the persistence of the slow garbage.