Amy C. Elliott has always wanted to make a film about a dump.
"That sounds kind of strange, but I think it's really interesting what people throw away, and the transitory nature of things and waste — the idea that something could be useful to someone, but the minute it hits the dump, it's not," the documentarian told Waste Dive in an interview last month. "What people throw away, and then what they take out of the dump — I always thought it would be an interesting film."
"Salvage", her latest documentary, is proof of that theory. Over the course of five years, the film follows the residents of Yellowknife — the capital of and only city in Canada's Northwest Territories — for whom salvaging at the town's open dump is a way of life. The documentary's subjects stumble across wedding dresses, teddy bears, vibrators, caribou carcasses, hand-made aboriginal moccasins — and, in the process, force viewers to interrogate their own relationship with waste.
Waste Dive spoke to Elliott about the filmmaking process, 21st-century consumerism and what she hopes audiences might take away from the documentary.
The following conversation has been edited for brevity and annotated for context.
WASTE DIVE: Can you tell me about yourself and what you do?
AMY C. ELLIOTT: I'm a documentary filmmaker and a photographer — "Salvage" is my third feature documentary. I usually cover off-beat Americana stuff: power shaped by place, things that are unique and interesting, communities and cultures that are very geographically specific. My first film, "World's Largest", is about towns across the country that have a giant roadside attraction; my second film was about competitive jigsaw puzzling in Minnesota.
This latest film fits into that, even though it's in Canada. Yellowknife is such a physically isolated place that salvaging at the dump was really borne out of necessity. For many people who grew up there, it took a really long time to get goods in, so they got used to reusing and repurposing everything that came in. This was a cultural phenomenon that was really tied to where they were.
How did you first hear about the Yellowknife dump, and what made you decide to chase the story?
ELLIOTT: My first choice wasn't Yellowknife, because it's literally 3,500 miles from where I'm based in New York City. But in America, most dumps aren't open at this point. Most landfills are closed to the public — you can't go in and take stuff like you used to 20 or 30 years ago, just for liability reasons. I did some online research and found a guy named Walt Humphries in Yellowknife who writes a weekly column called "Tales from the Dump." I read a bunch of his columns and said, "All right, if there's a community that actually has a weekly newspaper column dedicated to their dump, I should go check it out." I visited and realized this was a very unique opportunity — I wasn't going to get this anywhere else in the continent, probably.
[Yellowknife residents] have such a tradition of salvaging, and have for generations — it's just so entrenched in their culture. It was a really good opportunity to actually have access.
Seeing the relationship these residents have with their dump and the direct connection they have with their own waste — it's not something I've actually experienced before, or something most people living in ultra-developed urban areas are really accustomed to. Where do you think that disconnect stems from, and how do you think it's impacted us as a whole?
ELLIOTT: I think there are lots of things. One thing that didn't make it into the film, but I thought was interesting, was one of the salvagers saying how much more connected everybody in town is to what they throw away — because they can actually see it. We don't. We leave it on the curb or throw it in the bin in the basement of our apartment buildings. But they can go there — a lot of them drop their own garbage off. And because they have such a salvaging culture, a lot of people think twice about what they're throwing out and bring it instead to the salvage area, because they're like, "Oh, someone might need this bookshelf or this old vacuum."
But when you go there … I'd never been around that much garbage in my life. Not just the recyclables or the things we know that are garbage, but the actual items — some that were new and unopened. And the amount of plastic was insane. Just being there and seeing all of it — it was a real wake up call for me.
I think part of what happens in communities like ours, and all over the U.S. — because again, it's not just urban areas, I looked to smaller communities as well — it's understandable from a liability perspective, but the problem is when you restrict people from accessing the dump, they become separated from what they're discarding. It's out of sight, out of mind. You just don't think about the volume.
Yellowknife is a community of 20,000 people. Think about D.C. or New York — imagine what is thrown out in one of these landfills. I do think there's value in having an open dump and being able to see what everybody in your community throws away. Not everybody in the documentary was motivated by the environment, but I think people really had a sense of the abject waste that's going on with our consumerist culture — and a sense that something really has to be done about it.
Then, of course, the cheap goods. It's cheaper and easier now to throw out a broken stereo than it is to fix it … I do think that, as people, we've become far less connected to our objects and our ability to fix things, maintain them and keep them for longer.
The film shows this philosophy of reuse dissipating in Yellowknife, and the traditional role of the dump being discouraged as the town becomes wealthier and more developed. It's not hard to imagine a day when it may come to reflect what you and I know — where people are essentially disconnected from their belongings and waste. Do you think that shift to a throwaway society is more or less inevitable under capitalism?
ELLIOTT: I do. I don't see how it stops — I just think it's human nature. People are always going to do what's more efficient. One of the characters in the film — Duane, the young guy who gets all the vermicelli and ends up dumpster diving later — I had a discussion with him near the end of film about how he'd found a wetsuit at the dump. And it was just not quite warm enough — he was thrilled about it, but when he was out canoeing, he needed something a little heavier. I shot over five years, and this was one of the last shoots — so this was as the town was getting more and more developed. The south was coming to Yellowknife; the world got smaller. He said, "I can wait for a vest to show up or another wetsuit to show up, or I could spend 50 bucks on Amazon and have it here in a week."
It takes two seconds. Even people like that who are really committed to a life philosophy of not wasting, of valuing and reusing things until they're absolutely unable to be used again — there's something that's just too tempting when things are so readily available. We're in such an apex of consumerism — if you can get anything you want cheaply from a click on your computer, I don't see what will motivate people to not do that, to maintain the things they have and buy less.
The narrative around environmentalism in America has historically revolved around consumer responsibility — it's up to us to recycle, to stop littering, to reduce our personal consumption, to support sustainably-made products. Stepping away from that, what do you think should be the role of industry and government in furthering these aims?
ELLIOTT: That's a really hard question, because as a consumer myself, and a layperson not in the industry, I think I've kind of swallowed that wholesale — the idea that some of the responsibility is on us. But I do think after making this film, a couple of things struck me.
Elliott describes the "overwhelming" excess of plastic and packaging in the dump, citing limiting of planned obsolescence (possibly through Right to Repair policies) as a potential solution.
Again, I don't know how you ask corporations and businesses to do that if it's cheaper and more profitable for them not to, but I feel like that would be a huge change — if we could have a shift in attitude about the way we as consumers and manufacturers view items. That we want them to be useful to us and last as long as possible, that they're made to hold up under difficult conditions, and you're not supposed to just throw them away and replace with something else.
I can't speak to what that would do numbers-wise and the impact on the actual volume of e-waste, but I feel like there would be a broad psychological effect if that was something more practiced and valued. Things like thrift and the right to repair … there are some old-fashioned, arcane values that maybe need to come back in vogue if we're going to make any sort of impactful change to the way that we discard things.
Especially since so many of us consider our phones to be our most important possessions — if we can change how we think about their value and lifespan, maybe we can extend that to the way we think about other items.
ELLIOTT: Exactly. It's hard, because tech changes so quickly — but this is what they're doing in Yellowknife. These people feel like that's what they're doing in their little corner of the world, that they're getting as much out of that dump as possible and putting many of these items back into circulation.That was a really important message a lot of the salvagers had — that these items were meant to be used in someone's home, and they were taking them out of the dump and putting them back where they're meant to be. It's a really small corner of the world, and it's not even happening there nearly as much anymore.
Did the process of filming "Salvage" change your relationship with your own waste?
ELLIOTT: I'm pretty minimalist to begin with ... when I was a kid, I used to go dumpster diving with my brother, and I always knew there was good stuff in the trash. I wanted to make a film about a dump for a lot of those reasons. So it didn't change my relationship to things — I tend to think less is more when it comes to objects — but what surprised me the most was the amount of plastic and packaging. In terms of the actual objects, I was shocked at how many unopened and new items were found in the dump. But in terms of volume, I was stunned at how much plastic there was. I guess everything is made out of plastic — I didn't quite realize that until I was at a dump and saw it all not going anywhere.
Do you have a favorite person or story that came out of filming the documentary?
ELLIOTT: It's hard to say that I have a favorite person or story. I picked the characters in the film to follow because they all had a different interest in terms of salvaging — like Al, the older guy, who made a living getting all the metals out of the dump, or Thelma and her teddy bears. People had different beats. That was one of the things I came away with: the reasons were different for everybody, and what they were looking for was different.
As I said, some were not interested in the environment at all. Some were doing it purely to make money. Some were doing it purely for fun. There were a lot of artists there getting stuff to repurpose for art projects. There was the guy with the bicycles who had a booming bicycle repair business by the time we finished filming. People getting artwork or things they thought were unique and handmade. There was a nurse who only got baby clothes to wash and bring to the hospital she worked in.
But everybody had this idea that it was meaningful to rescue these things. That stayed with me — that it was important and meaningful to them to take these things out of the landfill and bring them back into use. That's something they all had in common. I really liked that.