“Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills, One man gathers what another man spills.” – St. Stephen by the Grateful Dead
Wednesday is trash day on my street, the day we roll our trash and recycle cans down to the curb for pick-up. Now I live in a city that is regularly profiled in Southern Living magazine for some new restaurant, event, festival, or, it seems, when our Mayor farts. It is a pretty city on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains filled with parks, walking paths, and a very bustling and quaint Downtown. I say all this to let you know that the residents of my fair city have grade A, first class, trash service. We have too, we have a fantasy image to maintain for magazine covers, and greatest place to live lists.
I can pile any number of items at the curb and they will magically disappear. Piles of leaves are removed by a high-tech vacuum truck with one operator, a long hose and a joy stick. It is a marvel of ingenuity. For larger junk, a dump-truck with a mechanical arm attached like you see in the arcades comes and grabs our stuff like a stuffed teddy-bear. Short of paint or other toxins there isn’t much the city won’t pick-up and haul away if they get there before our local salvage guy makes his neighborhood rounds on Tuesday night.
We have lived in our house for almost 20 years and in those 20 years, I will call him “Salvage Guy” has patrolled our streets looking for treasures. He drives a beat-up truck towing a trailer and honestly if we had a state automobile inspection neither would be allowed on the road. The bed of his truck is always stacked high, too high, with cardboard boxes and wood pallets leaning far on one side. The trailer is filled with junk, from old plastic yard toys, broken lamps to rusted out grills, things that were once our treasures but have either quit working or are no longer played with.
Salvage Guy looks like an actor Hollywood would have cast for the role in a B-movie, long gray hair, a beard down to his waist, overalls, and a baseball cap. I see him all over town, driving slow, typically and thankful 20 mph below the speed limit, with those pallets swaying back and forth in the bed of his truck. I have seen him early in the morning at McDonald’s sitting in his truck drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper. I would love to know his story but the few times I have tried to strike up a conversation as he shifted through the few things I had piled in front of my house he has simply ignored my attempts to engage him.
One man gathers what another man spills. You and I spill a lot. We spill enough to keep hundreds of thousands of Salvage Guys busy around the clock. Did you ever walk into a convenience store and just look around? If you thought about it what you would be looking at are shelves, upon shelves of future trash, trash for our landfills, trash for the sides of our roads. We are, in the simplest terms, a disposable society which is to say a rootless society. We expect our needs, and our wants to be fulfilled instantaneously and once fulfilled, discard them to make room for our next need or want. We waste resources, we waste materials, we waste land, we even waste each other. Our consumerism has no bounds and the convenience store, particularly one that sells gasoline is the nonpareil example of how our society views the fulfillment of our needs and how we view mother earth, as a massive toilet.
Wendell Berry in his essay “WASTE” states: “Our waste problem is not the fault only of producers. It is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom —a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom — and all of us are involved in it. If we wish to correct this economy, we must be careful to understand and to demonstrate how much waste of human life is involved in our waste of the material goods of Creation. For example, much of the liter that now defaces our country is fairly directly caused by the massive secession or exclusion of most of our people from active participation in the food economy. We have made a social ideal of minimal involvement in the growing and cooking of food. This is one of the dearest’ liberations” of our affluence. Nevertheless, the more dependent we become on the industries of eating and drinking, the more waste we are going to produce. The mess that surrounds us, then, must be understood not just as a problem in itself but as a symptom of a greater and graver problem the centralization of our economy — the gathering of the productive property and power into fewer and fewer hands, and the consequent destruction, everywhere, of the local economies of household, neighborhood, and corn — mutiny.”
I realize that is damn near impossible to change how products are packaged and made. Appliances are built to last ten years or until the parts become more expensive than what you paid for the stove or refrigerator ten years before. Plastic, Styrofoam and cardboard have made our lives more convenient and probably somewhat safer but there is a price to pay. Maybe you and I won’t be forced to pay it but some generation will, someone will have to pay for the mountains of trash we are creating.
Next time you go to a convenience store stop, think and look around. Is there another way you could buy that coke or pack of crackers? Maybe there isn’t but then again, maybe there is, or maybe there should be.
“Much of our waste problem is to be accounted for by the intentional flimsiness and unrepairability of the labor-savers and gadgets that we have become addicted to.” – Wendell Berry