TrashTalking Her Way to A Better Future: How Alexa Gantous is helping people in cities reconnect with the environment

September 18, 2019

How many times have you thought about the coffee cup as you sip on a latte? If you are like most people, you probably only think about the coffee you are enjoying. That’s how our brains are wired. We’re programmed to see only the immediate use something has for us. When the coffee is finished, we throw the cup away and that’s it. But, where did that cup come from? What will happen to it after it’s thrown away? Where is away?

These are questions that Alexa Gantous, 2016 Italia Innovation participant, wants people to start asking themselves. While we might feel detached from the straws we use for iced coffee or the plastic water bottles we buy at the gym, the reality is that we are not separate from our trash and we need to become more conscious of that. In fact Alexa notes, “The things we throw away in the most literal ways end up inside us and have changed us physiologically.” 

That’s why Alexa started TrashTalk, a living lab that is helping humans in cities reconnect with the environment. Especially for city dwellers who are surrounded by skyscrapers and concrete instead of trees and grass, it’s easy to forget that we are in a relationship with nature. She says, “The world is created on myths and stories that we tell ourselves. Currently, the model that our society operates under is that we dominate nature. Humans are at the center of everything, but if you actually zoom out and understand it from another perspective, that’s not true. We are invisibly but inherently interconnected to all the human and nonhuman systems on earth. We are merely a part of a much more complex system where nothing is separate from the whole.” Since our societies are organized in a way where it’s inevitable for us to cause harm to the environment, Alexa thinks it’s essential that we begin to ask better questions about how we’re living, what we’re buying, and particularly, what we’re designing. 

Alexa developed the idea at Parsons School of Design as she was working on her thesis for the Strategic Design and Management program. Through her major, as well as her minor in environmental studies, she discovered she could use design as a tool to solve issues of human connection to the environment. She says, “TrashTalk was actually born out of me exploring the question of how humans relate to the environment.” While most students don’t continue their thesis projects post graduation, Alexa carried on her work, saying, “I am so passionate about this topic that my thesis was more of an exploration of a life’s mission that I hope will continue to evolve.”

Through TrashTalk, Alexa has developed a framework and tools to help people explore their relationship to the environment, specifically by encouraging them to become more conscious about how they are physically interacting with the earth through their garbage. The main initiative is TrashTalk, which is a conversation where participants are guided through a journey to examine their role as makers, consumers, and humans in the face of the environmental crisis. 

Alexa has run TrashTalks around New York City including at The Assemblage and The Wing co-working spaces. At each conversation she asks people to bring something that they know is bad for the environment, but use anyways. Then, she has the participants hold the object in their hands and close their eyes, taking them through a series of playful meditative exercises so they can get into the mindset to contemplate what the object is and to separate it from the purpose that it serves. The rest of the conversation unpacks that moment. 

She makes it very clear that TrashTalk is about helping people ask themselves the right questions instead of telling them what to do. Describing what she hopes people take away from a TrashTalk she says, “It’s about the mindset that we’re not just consumers, we’re makers. Most people, have the ability to create the world and create their reality. As designers or entrepreneurs, every single decision we make not only in terms of what we consume, but in terms of what we are making, has the power to impact the world we are living in. Loving the earth is not an idea, it is a decision. Or rather, a series of the millions of decisions that are making every minute of everyday. Whether to get that coffee to-go, what toothbrush to buy, or for that matter, how to design, manufacture, or market that cup or toothbrush in the first place. Only by learning to see beyond ourselves, can we begin to create a better reality.”

While Alexa has always facilitated the conversations, her goal is to make these tools open-source so that people can easily host their own events and dialogues. One step towards that direction was the creation of the Unlearning Cards, which are sold at Ubuntu Market at The Assemblage co-working space in New York City. Each set includes 25 cards asking provocative questions to help people reflect on their relationship with the environment and 50 cards with simple suggestions on how to take action. This expands the ways in which people can engage with TrashTalk and its mission.

Looking to the future, Alexa is open to seeing how TrashTalk will adapt through different collaborations, the lifeblood of all the initiatives. Alexa says, “That’s why I call it a living lab, because it works through collaboration, you could never do it as a single person. I can provide something, but it’s not until someone reaches out for a collaboration that it becomes something really interesting.” 

This is something she learned during her time at Italia Innovation. Reflecting on her experience she says, “It definitely taught me a lot about the power of collaboration, the fact that you need so many different players to make a project or a vision happen. That is something that Italia Innovation does very well, bringing together people with different mindsets. This idea of the interdisciplinary is essential for everything that I’ve continued to do afterwards. It’s a mentality that is the future.”