Originally, I only planned to include a quick note about our dumpster delivery in my reLuxe Round-up for February 2, 2015 under the title “Dumpster Delight”. You know something like…“I’m so excited, we just had a giant dumpster delivered so I can finally clean up awful eye-sore piles of plastic, metal, and junk strewn in piles around our property.” But as I sat down to write about it, I realized having a 22’ x 8’ foot dumpster delivered to our “sustainable” farmstead demanded more page time.
As a former suburbanite, I come from a culture of keeping a few tidy cans tucked into a little nook in my garage for routine deposits from inside the house and around the yard. Then once or twice a week, we roll those cans curbside and let the trash carriers whisk our mess to the magical “Away-land”. On Wednesdays, they even let us wheel out tires, carpet, and appliances for special pick-up and processing in “Away-land”. When you have twice weekly pick-up, it’s easy not to worry or even think about your trash output - which for the average American that’s nearly 4.5 pounds per day, or 130 pounds per month (according to the EPA). Now, I’ve been a “greenie” for a while so reducing my contributions to “Away-land” has been a long-standing goal. I bought in bulk or at farmer’s markets to avoid packaging, recycled or reused trash in unconventional ways, and even picked through other people’s curbside deposits to rescue what I could (Thanks Mom for being my sidekick on trash day all those years!). Even though I did my “best” not to contribute to a disposable culture, my efforts amounted to feel-good green-washing.
The hard truth for us to face is that every piece of trash we create is – excuse the pun – a waste. If you believe products like water bottles, cans, food wrappers, boxes, grocery store bags, etc. are convenient and harmless, and that recycling makes you “environmentally friendly” - you are wrong. Creating and disposing of trash costs all of us in innumerable ways that we don’t normally remember to calculate. I don’t just mean the obvious environmental costs that greenies tend to bandy about (you know…climate catastrophe, resource devastation, toxicity to fish, wildlife, and ourselves, etc.). I am talking about the massive civic infrastructure and economic activity devoted to producing packaging and managing the waste by-products of goods designed to have a short shelf life (latest smart phone, fashion trend, or broken appliance).
I am also talking about the added costs of packaging, shipping, keeping up with the Jones’s, etc. that make it necessary for us to work more to be able to afford those perfume bottle sets from fine department stores, the pretty striped bag and tissue paper with your $100 Vietnam-manufactured bra and panty set, or the latest/greatest “whatever” technology contraption designed to make your life easier. I am not the statistician type, but even with my ordinary brain, I know that an incredible - mind-boggling - amount of human time, energy, resources, etc. goes into producing, customizing, and distributing packaging and non-durable goods (as well as marketing them us) so that we can eventually deposit said items in “Away-land.” Or clean them up from roads, waterways, parks… where they often inadvertently end up. I also know that if we directed all those resources to making a sustainable world, we’d be living in one in no time.
I am not going to run through the line-up of things we can do to reduce our impact. Because the other hard truth to face is that we are way beyond quick fixes. There is no easy answer. It’s all uphill from here because we waited too long. But I do have one overall recommendation for everyone who wants to work towards really being “environmentally friendly”.
Stop believing in the magical, mythical “Away-land”. This suggestion doesn’t just apply to the away-land where garbage goes, but to all those “away-land” areas around the planet where things are manufactured – cheaply - for our benefit. Whenever you make a purchase, imagine that the waste-side of your transaction is going to end up in the kitchen or yard of someone you love and that they will know that you put it there. I know it won’t (at least not directly), but we all make different calculations when we realize our choices impact those we care about. Or imagine that your mother/sister/best-friend had to spend twelve hours hunched over a machine - in a falling-down, windowless factory- to produce that trendy shirt, state of the art TV, or newly manufactured whatever you are about to buy. Then ask yourself if you really “need” or even want whatever seems so important at the moment.
An aside for those of you who like to believe “away-lands” are good for the world because it gives people jobs – For you, I recommend a stronger course of action. Skip the imagination exercise and go work one of those Away-land jobs for a few years. Then let’s talk.
Ok, now that my soap-box spew is over, it’s time for me to confess to my personal dumpster dilemma… In rural areas, like ours, there is no trash pick-up. Really. So when you want to dispose of something, you have to go visit “Away-land”. We are lucky to have a “recycle center” about five miles from us. We load the car and take our “household” trash to a parking lot with a few small dumpsters and some home-sized trash cans for you to sort your waste into (aluminum, glass, plastic, cardboard, magazines, clothes/shoes, and “household trash” all have to go into different containers). The attendant watches and assists to make sure that you sort properly and that you don’t try to dispose of anything not “household” related. Big stuff, like a roll of carpet, you get to haul about twenty miles away to the landfill and pay per pound to dump it. Toxic materials – paint, empty oil containers, garden/lawn chemicals, etc. you keep at home until October and then you drop them off at a one day toxic clean-up event held at a local park.
As a result of the difficulty and expense of disposal, two things are generally true of rural folks. First, they tend to have less trash than suburbanites. This may be a function of lower incomes or distance from town as well, but nonetheless they manage to get by producing less waste per person. Second, they often create personal landfill piles around their property instead of paying to dump large items at the community landfill. The former owners of our property did this and so as part of our home purchase price, we inherited several piles of rotting carpet, furniture, broken farm/yard equipment, plastic containers, tires, a TV, rusted sheet metal, and more. These piles were situated in areas that were probably out of sight for the previous owners. However, since we use the whole property to run the goats, chickens, and ducks, there is no such thing as out of sight for us.
I wish I could claim that I was worried the piles were toxic or dangerous for the animals (probably not), but the honest to goodness truth is that I had a dumpster delivered because I couldn’t stand to look at the ugly trash piles. I felt the need to apologize for their hideousness every time we gave guests a tour of the reLuxe Ranch. They made me ashamed. These weren’t my piles, but I have certainly contributed my share of this kind of ugliness to the world we inhabit and then some. They were the truth of a disposable culture that I supported and participated in made visible in my own yard. I wanted to send them “away” like I used to do in the suburbs.
And I did, with a kind of sick joy in my heart. I spent three weeks dragging down every piece of trash with a less than a three year biodegradable life span and loaded it into that dumpster. Then, I watched with glee as the dumpster was loaded and hauled back off our property.
Bye-bye awful piles!
I know that moving the trash from our house to the landfill is not an answer. The landfill for Mount Airy, NC is, in fact, backyard to many homes located near this “Away-land”. Even though the landfill is kept as tidy as possible (e.g. piles buried with dirt and new deposits covered nightly), the distinct “eau du garbage” wafts through the air for miles around, making the fact of it’s existence impossible to ignore even if you manage to turn a blind eye. So in effect, I knowingly sent my hideous piles off to be someone else’s eye-sore and problem. I allowed myself to believe in Away-land one more time for the sake of our picturesque farm landscape.
For now, we have landfills, trash pick-up in the suburbs and cities, and dumpster deliveries. We also have a deep-seated cultural belief that if you can’t see it (or your preferred politician doesn’t tell you about it), then it doesn’t exist. We must change these things. We must end waste and integrate our “Away-lands” into our personal landscapes. To do this, we will have to change almost everything about our modern, affluent ways of living (which doesn’t have to be a bad thing).
I know this. Matt and I are radically modifying our lives to do this. Having a dumpster delivered and cleaning up the piles was, unquestionably, a luxury–an extravagant one - not a “reLuxe” style luxury. As should be the case with a luxury, I understood that it was not without consequences, I recognized that it was meant to be a one time event, and I met the experience with respect and appreciation. I have also compounded the pleasure of that luxury by enjoying the beauty of a trash-free landscape every day since the clean-up.
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