Fall 2001, Volume 19.1
Julia Corbett is an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah, where she teaches and writes about environmental communication. She says a good day consists of a hike, tomatoes from the garden, and writing amidst her admirers—a dog and cat who love her though they have never read her work.
A trash pile the size of two cars is yawning into the street. At its base are chunks of concrete and dirt clods stacked several feet high. Lying limply over the concrete is a mattress, stained blue flowers on a once-satiny white, ripped to reveal an underbelly of weary springs. A roll of olive green carpet, a closet door with a hole in it, and a tangled mound of chain link form the next layer. On top of that are several large limbs of a Chinese elm, a vagabond in this valley that escapes the mower by rooting quickly, deeply, and prodigiously along fence lines and foundations. Its dead leaves crumble onto the layers below. Perched precariously at the top of the pile is an assortment of cardboard boxes, a garden hose, several tires, and plastic resin chairs—two white, one green.
I've been watching this pile across the street grow for a couple of weeks,
waiting for trash day—not just any trash day, but the granddaddy of all trash
days. Once a year in Salt Lake City where I live, city crews pick up anything
you stack at the curb. Well, almost anything: not hazardous waste like paint or
not tires, and not batteries. But basically anything else you and your family can manage to get to the curb. Each neighborhood draws a week-long pick-up slot sometime between April and September, and ours is next week. For weeks before the scheduled pick-up date, the piles have expanded and multiplied, giving the streets a full and cluttered feeling. My neighborhood has few garages, and cars must compete for curbside space and maneuver past piles breaching into the street or toppled by winds or mischief.
I don't know if many other cities do this sort of thing—none of the dozen I've lived in has. It's an extremely curious event. Curious that the city conducts this annual "Neighborhood Cleanup Program," and more curious still how folks participate in it. At one extreme, the enormous piles suggest that folks have been saving up all year, waiting to heave another TV tray or broken mop on the pile. On the other extreme, there are two piles on my block that consist of a couple of empty cardboard boxes that easily could be smashed and put in the blue recycling bins, or that would easily fit in the gargantuan green garbage containers supplied by the city. Perhaps it's civic pride, contributing your fair share and participating, even if it ain't much. The granddaddy of all trash days provides curious commentary not only on the city's hang-ups about appearances, but also on our consumptive tastes, the life-span of our consumer goods, and how we use, discard, and waste.
The city sent me a survey about the cleanup program last fall— "help us help you," they asked. They asked whether the city should restrict the pick-up of construction materials like concrete, whether they should (finally) enforce the separation of green waste from other trash, and whether the program was worth the $2.28 a month each resident is charged (whether she produces a pile or not). That means during the time I've lived here, I've paid almost $200 to make it easy for others to pitch without pause. I checked all the "no" boxes on the survey; there wasn't room to say much more.
I've become quite a voyeur of these trash piles on my daily dog walks. It's a fascinating window on what wears out its physical or desirable life-span and testimony to a throw-away culture. And despite the cheerful, back-patting ads by the plastic industry, many of the broken, cracked, and worn-out items on the piles are made of plastic, a lesson I vow to remember in future shopping decisions. I see lots of lawn furniture in trash piles, but also plastic wading pools, plastic kid toys, blue plastic tarps, plastic tables, plastic shelves, plastic crates. Also frequently spotted are heaps of old carpet and old couches and chairs that look like they're waiting for curb-side guests. Some furniture is Salvation Army quality, but some of it waited out its final days on porches or in garages, grimy and missing cushions, collecting mold and nesting creatures. The carpet rolls reflect outmoded fashion choices—gold, avocado, ultra shag.
Yesterday while walking the dog, I helped two kids drag a metal fencepost with a large plug of concrete attached. The boys had been paid a dollar by their dad to consolidate the household pile, which, amidst exuberant heaving, had extended into the neighbor's driveway. In addition to the fencing and concrete, their pile was typical in that it consisted primarily of wood, both recently living and long-since dead. The living wood includes unwanted trees and limbs, pruned fruit trees, overgrown lilacs, and junipers. The dead wood is just as plentiful: tattered desks and end-tables, lots of cheap particle board furniture, weathered wooden fences and broken boards, even entire garages.
Although the city said that this year they wouldn't pick up piles of trash mixed with "green waste," some residents continue to interpret this as a request, not a requirement. And apparently, so does the city. A friend who lives near Liberty Park said that although most of her block dutifully separated their piles, the dozer scooped up all piles—mixed and separated—and placed them in just one truck. Each spring, she and I make a trip to the landfill to reap the benefits of green waste that does manage to get separated and composted: fresh wood chips for our flower beds. We stab our pitchforks into the towering pile, filling a metal garbage can lined with a garbage bag; the deeper into the pile we dig, the more it steams in the sun, and the more it smells like the woods after a rain. The chips cost $12 for as many bags as we can cram into the car—this year 14.
Yet very little yard waste is ever returned to the earth as nutrients and humus—the EPA estimates that nationwide only 41% is recycled. That figure is no doubt made "greener" by places like Berkeley, where my brother fills up a separate green-waste bin for curbside pick-up each month. But here, plastic bags of lawn clippings frequently top-off garbage cans. Utah, perhaps like other places, lacks a composting mentality, although its pioneer roots included farming. Friends, neighbors, and co-workers find my backyard compost bin an oddity. "Does it smell?" they inquire. Said another, "Oh, I don't put any vegetable waste in the garbage—I just put it all down the disposal." In the Iowa of my youth, long before fancy plastic compost bins, we took grass clippings, corn husks and pea pods to a mound in the woods. Sometimes my father putzed with the pile, watering and turning it to make rich, black mulch for the garden; some years it just aged all by itself, slowly shrinking into the duff.
At least our annual curbside event seems to have a food chain all its own with trash scavengers, professional and amateur, cruising the streets to pluck items before clean-up crews arrive. I first noticed this when my kitchen remodeling coincided with trash week and I—somewhat proudly—built my very first pile at the curb. The contractors said they usually haul this stuff away themselves, but what the heck, the city would do it for "free." Overnight, my pile shrunk. First, the oversized 1917 kitchen sink disappeared. The next morning, a few cupboard doors went missing. The following day when I was drinking coffee, I saw a beat-up flatbed truck roll by slowly, trolling for trash. The truck's flimsy wood sides, wired together, looked like a depression-era vehicle stacked high with possessions—solid wood doors, a cast iron bathtub, garden tools with broken handles, an electric stove, a bike, sheet metal, and window screens. The driver got out and poked at my pile with his boot. He looked at the truck, looked back at my broken tile countertop, and then called for his buddy to help lift it. Eventually all that remained in my pile were broken pieces of drywall and odd ends of trim molding; I scooped the paltry remains into my trash bin.
Amateur trash scavengers also do their part. Last week when I was walking the dog about three blocks over, I saw a woman deposit two new-looking chaise lounge cushions on top of some cardboard boxes; maybe she didn't like the color or they were an unwanted present, but the cushions certainly weren't worn out. By the time the dog and I headed back down the same street toward home, the cushions were gone.
If Salt Lake City didn't operate this annual program, would our yards be overgrown and jammed with junk? Doubtful. Most cities manage just fine without one, and residents find alternatives. But what this type of program symbolizes is not only our propensity to pitch, but how insanely easy we've made it—even how we expect it. America produces more garbage than any other nation on earth—4.4 pounds per person a day—and my city provides me with carefree ways to dispose of my poundage and be free of the consequences of my consumption. My weekly garbage pickup encourages similar disposal; I have managed to fill my gigantic bin just a few times in seven years, yet my meager leavings cost me the same amount as bins overflowing each and every week. There is no incentive for conservation. It's the same mentality with water in our semi-desert valley: you might as well water that immense lawn in the heat of the day in a stiff wind, because Utah has the lowest water rates in the nation, and lo and behold, the second highest per capita consumption (Nevada wins there). Perhaps it's pioneer domination mentality or Western abundance myths, part of making the desert bloom in front of tidy properties. For this is Salt Lake City, where Olympic scandals are tolerated, polygamy is more often whispered about than prosecuted, and where a church gets to buy a block of Main Street and restrict free speech on it. Appearances—uncluttered yards, kept green lawns, and harmony—are important here.
But in Salt Lake or Sheboygan, stuff wears out, stuff breaks. And since time immemorial, stuff is thrown out. When I was young, my friends and I walked the abandoned railroad tracks, and if we ventured far enough away from the creek valley and into the farmlands, we would inevitably encounter a natural ravine filled to the rim with ancient trash. Rusted mattress springs, tin cans, old wire, even abandoned tractors and cars, all caked with charcoal from burning to reduce the bulk. We'd poke through the debris like little archaeologists, digging with sticks, looking for treasures, not realizing that what landed in this pile had outlived perhaps several iterations. I can't help but think that a personal trash ravine would affect what you threw out, what you reused, maybe even what you bought. You were in a sense responsible for it because it wasn't traveling more than a few hundred yards away. Perhaps that's sentimental nonsense. Maybe if you had the "empty" land, then anything goes—and went.
But we weren't the consumers 40 years ago that we are today, so it stands to reason we're not the same kind of disposers either. Our annual production of municipal solid waste was 88 million tons in 1960; today it's over 220 million tons. We're running out of ravines in a very practical sense. Although Salt Lake has an "empty" desert to dump in, many cities scramble for dump or barge space.
So why does America produce more garbage than any other nation on earth? Although I haven't studied economics since my undergraduate days, I know that trash is intricately tied to economics. Everyone has encountered a toaster oven, a hair dryer, even a car that's cheaper to toss than to fix. When I dropped my lightweight $100 binoculars, I discovered that it would cost $110 to repair them. A short life-span is virtually a built-in feature of many products. I can't even replace the screen on my back screen door that the cat made into mincemeat by climbing it, impatient to be let inside. Unlike the old-fashioned wood screen doors with a tack strip you could remove to replace the screen fabric, I will have to sew on patches or buy a whole new door. But the economics of trash are easily adjusted—like statistics bent to multiple purposes—easily discounted for costs incurred both at home and abroad. Clothes assembled with cheap labor in Asia, paper milled from Forest Service trees sold below-cost, poor pollution controls in maquiladoras along the Mexican border, cheap beef grazed on former rainforest in central America—they make the purchase price cheaper, the costs to our world greater. Yet the economics of trash isn't seriously questioned, even by a nation like ours that claims to love the environment.
But even when the economics tilt in favor of waste, there still ought to be an ethics of trash or of waste. A waste ethic would say even if it's cheap to make and easy to toss, sometimes you just shouldn't; it's not right. Aldo Leopold's land ethic said when something harms the integrity of the biotic community, it is wrong; consuming cheaply and frequently and enormously simply because we can is also wrong. To me, what an individual chooses to consume (and therefore eventually dispose) says far more about his or her relationship to the natural world and about living a green life than does contributing $50 to a wilderness battle, enjoying the mountains on weekends, or joining the Audubon Society. Minding your trash, reducing your waste says you're thankful for the resources you use—more natural resources used than by any other country on earth. It says you recognize the real costs that your consumption represents—the trees killed, oil spilled, habitat lost, minerals dug from the earth, air and water compromised.
The ethics of waste on a grand scale were obvious when my friend Camille
called me in tears one day. Developers were tearing down a house adjacent to her
property, a peaceful enclave on the banks of Cottonwood Creek draining from the
Wasatch Mountains. "They're just bulldozing everything and hauling it
away!" she cried. In a few months, two
brand-new monstrous houses were built where the nice, large 1950s rambler once stood. Camille has witnessed the razing of 18 houses in her neighborhood, 12 of them for a parking lot. "It seems like such a farce, recycling my newspapers and cans when people can just waste all those perfectly good houses," she said. "It's like a very bad joke."
Although I still dutifully place my blue and green recycling bins at the curb each Tuesday, I also wonder if it's all a farce. I've heard the stories of recyclers hauling recyclables to the dump, not the recycling plant, when the economics don't add up quite right. It cracks me up to read on the bottom of a plastic container "recyclable" when it's plastic #5 and my city takes only plastic types #1 and #2. But the bins are seductive; they make you feel good, that you are living a green, politically correct life. Imbedded into the recycling psyche is the idea that "hey, I'm off the hook, I recycle my newspapers and pop cans." Ironically, the very notion of recycling doesn't say "don't consume," but rather to consume those resources again and again.
A waste ethic is missing from everyday praxis, from the numerous very little ways that we enact our lives each day. And such an ethic would seem to be a bonafide no-brainer for the thousands who call themselves environmentalists. On its face, environmentalism is a label as strong and certain as a bumper sticker. But like other "-isms," the substance of environmentalism takes place beyond and below the overt and direct. Marketers may be interested in the superficials of recycling behavior and "green" consumption, but environmentalism as ideology involves deeper, yet subtler, matters of daily life.
I went to a dinner gathering last week, and because I've been fixated on the granddaddy trash day, my "waste antennae" were on full alert. The hosts and many of the guests were loyal supporters of environmental causes, but everywhere I turned, the practices and the purchases revealed contradictions between preserving and consuming. Everything was served on plastic-ware; even the tablecloth was disposable. The air conditioner was running, yet the living room windows were open, "for some fresh air" my host told me. When I used the phone in the den, I noticed that the wastebasket was full of failed Xeroxes and once-used printer paper. The plastic wrap that covered my dish and that I carefully folded for reuse was thrown out. Paper-towels were used liberally instead of the sponge and kitchen towels. The trash-can was full of stray cans and beer bottles. In the bathroom, the toilet ran constantly, in need of minor adjustments. While several of us stood in the kitchen talking, the hostess left the faucet running full-bore while she went to the refrigerator, talked to someone, went back to the frig, and finally back to the sink. In addition to the libations provided, numerous folks were drinking bottled water, in a city that has some of the best tap water I've ever tasted, direct from snowmelt. The label on the bottled water had a picture of a snow-covered mountain on it. And all of us guests drove separately—myself included—even though six of us live in the same neighborhood.
Of course, none of these actions classify as cardinal sins, and some might
even say "no big deal," pretty petty, really. But as everyday
practice, these little
actions collectively say bigger things. Praxis of a philosophy, any philosophy, is always harder and complex.
When I grew up, our family's praxis included a strong waste ethic—not because my parents had an ecocentric, tree-hugging worldview, but because their formative years spanned the 1930s and `40s, when you learned not be cavalier with what you bought or what you threw away. It also was due to a "scotch" father who unrelentingly kept track of the family's pennies, but the end result was the same: waste wasn't tolerated. We didn't waste well water, we were hounded to turn off lights, we consolidated trips in the car, we didn't waste food. We practiced "reduce, reuse, recycle" at home before the slogan every appeared. When the car ran over the hose couplings, Dad repaired it, as he did leaky faucets and running toilets. Mom repaired clothing and re-upholstered the couch when the fabric got grimy. Our family of five filled up one metal garbage can twice each week, all that was allowed. If we were producing today's average 4.4 pounds per person per day—a total of 154 pounds a week—it never would have fit.
Regardless of whether my city one day enforces green waste separation and other rules, they're missing the point. They should end the granddaddy trash day and quit making it so easy to pitch. They could take the money from this program and use it in a significant way, like a monthly green waste pickup program during the warm months, like creative recycling for furniture and mattresses and old lumber, like a listing service for used household or business items, like expanding the city's plastics and glass recycling and even adding paper and paperboard (38% of our garbage) to the list of recyclables. They'll probably think me a heretic in the land of harmonious tidiness, but I'd even suggest banning bottled water and instead mailing each resident a reusable water bottle with a picture of a mountain on it. That's a start.