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Bringing Dane County’s Trash Lab To Life

How do we inspire people to pay attention to their relationship with stuff?

As waste management professionals, we often find ourselves asking questions like this quite frequently. Trash, once thrown away, becomes so out of sight, and out of mind for most people; how do we bring it into the forefront of people’s minds so they realize the impacts of their waste generation?


The Trash Lab is one way we are seeking to do this here in Dane County.


Created through an innovative collaboration between the Dane County Department of Waste and Renewables and Madison Children’s Museum, Dane County’s mobile exhibit, Trash Lab, encourages the community to rethink waste and consumption patterns. The exhibit explores the social justice, economic, and environmental effects of waste, connecting our local experiences to both local and global outcomes. Trash Lab helps citizens of all ages better understand the implications of the waste they produce, how landfills work, and new opportunities for more sustainable solutions.

PURPOSE: We want the Trash Lab to transform people’s relationship with waste. We want them to reimagine our current system by adopting a new narrative that moves away from the linear, “cradle to grave” model of materials, towards a circular model, as found in Nature. We’d like people to examine their own lifestyle choices, and encourage them to ask manufacturers, producers, and elected officials to provide the options and infrastructure needed to make this narrative come to life. In the IceBerg Model pictured, we really want to hit that “mental models” piece with our Trash Lab.

Equipped with the dream of transforming people’s relationship with materials and the monetary funding to help bring this dream to life, I sought out community partners to work with on the project. Of the organizations I spoke to, the Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) had both the interest and the capacity to work on such a project with us. As a national leader in sustainable exhibit design, MCM could not have been a more perfect partner for the project. They provided great expertise and skill in weaving important, complex issues into engaging, influential exhibits and play experiences. These were just the skills we needed to bring “an out of sight, and out of mind” topic like waste into the forefront of people’s mind and sight.

Housed in a fully accessible, 27-foot-long repurposed cargo trailer with a whimsical exterior, you really can’t miss the Trash Lab on the road. We designed the Trash Lab to be an eye catching exhibit to capture visitors’ imaginations as it travels throughout Dane County. Inside, we crafted more than 10 playful interactive stations, engaging stories, and a wealth of data, along with compelling photography and video footage. Trash Lab’s design guides visitors to imagine a circular consumption/waste system, where things are built to last longer, to be repurposed, and/or to be recycled.


It doesn’t stop there. We really wanted the Trash Lab to embody the principles of responsible design and sustainable exhibit development. We used predominantly repurposed materials to create the Trash Lab, including a reclaimed trailer, reclaimed wood and stone, and assorted objects and artifacts found in the Dane County landfill. The entire ceiling of the trailer is lined with colorful items found in the waste stream, all in perfectly good condition, including an old rake, children’s toys, dinnerware, shoes, tires, jewelry, garden supplies, and car and truck parts. The overall weight of the project is 4,552 pounds, incorporating 4,100 pounds of reclaimed parts and materials (trailer, reclaimed hardwood, hardware, stone, objects and artifacts) and 452 pounds of new materials (plywood, plexiglass, wood, hardware, and lighting). Reclaimed materials account for 90% of the exhibit’s weight.


Furthermore, the Trash Lab exhibits were also designed with modularity, meaning the exhibits can be taken out with relative ease. This design with end of life in mind allows the Trash Lab to be used as a hauling trailer again at its end of life.


Another important value that guided the project was our desire for the Trash Lab to advance equity and inclusion of solid waste and recycling education. We focused on making our educational tool, the Trash Lab, a mobile unit so that it can be hauled to events and taken to schools that may not otherwise have the means to travel to the Dane County landfill to learn about solid waste and recycling. Additionally, the Trash Lab is wheelchair accessible and there are booklets available for visitors who wish for a Spanish translation of the exhibit material. When it isn’t traveling, Trash Lab lives at the Dane County landfill, where it welcomes visitors as part of Dane County’s public tours of the landfill and on-site renewable energy plant.

Personally, building the Trash Lab in partnership with the Madison Children’s Museum was such a labor of love, and it has been so rewarding to see community members interact with the exhibit and walk away with, what I hope to be, more mindfulness when it comes to the relationship they have with stuff. The Trash Lab has allowed us to expand our capacity for outreach and education, and build new relationships with organizations and individuals who want to join us in moving towards a circular economy. It’s time for that new narrative that goes beyond sustainability and towards mutual thriving of all Earth inhabitants and resources.


I would like to close by recalling a familiar adage that I’ve adapted with a third line, which I feel describes the different visions we can choose to work towards: extractive, sustainable, and regenerative.

  • “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.”- The man is dependent, an extractive relationship is formed.

  • “If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”- The man can sustain himself.

  • “If you teach a man to love the ocean, then both will thrive.”- Love for our resources will drive a regenerative attitude that works for mutual thriving.

Here’s my attempt to bring this language into our world of waste / materials:

  • “If you teach a man to use resources, he extracts to create.”

  • “If you can teach a man to reduce, reuse, recycle, he will avoid resource depletion.”

  • “If you teach a man to love our Earth’s resources, then both will thrive.”

The Trash Lab is my small attempt to incorporate some of the latter messaging into our outreach work. All those beautiful objects on the Trash Lab’s ceiling, all from our waste stream, are marvelous resources we’ve been gifted. How can we continue to treat these objects with gratitude and respect throughout its lifetime, and integrate it back into Earth’s systems when we are done? It is a great task for regenerative designers & thinkers to be sure, but we’ve all got a role we can play to work towards a system of mutual thriving for all.


Written by Sujata Gautam of Dane County Department of Waste and Renewables. October 2021

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