Throwing the World Away


Most of us are accustomed to the idea of recycling now, but I remember well the very first time my Dad was at my house and saw me sorting out the trash into glass, cans, paper and garbage. Then I began to rinse out the cans. He asked me what I was doing and when I explained it, he was incensed. 

“Washing your garbage before you throw it away! That’s just crazy. I don’t know why you put up with the government making you do a thing like that!”

I explained to him that it was a voluntary thing that I wanted to do, but he just didn’t get it. To him, garbage was garbage. You threw it away and that was that. He had grown up in a world of endless resources and still believed in it. 

That was a long time ago.

Now most of us, I think, recycle at home, work and school. I have two big brown bins for lawn clippings, yard waste and organic kitchen waste (non meat). I have two very big blue containers for paper and plastic and neatly bagged batteries. And a smaller container for glass.

And I have a garbage can. 

I’ve purposely kept the inside-the-house garbage can small, so I have to dump it daily. Into it goes all the things that I turn into garbage every day. Those things are not garbage when they come into my house. I make them into garbage.  Strange to think that I am a one-woman garbage manufacturer.  “Food-contaminated paper” is one category I make. Non-recyclable plastics. Bottle caps. Old ball point pens. Used tissues. Used paper towels. Laundry lint and floor sweepings. Handfuls of dog hair. Broken toys. Dead light bulbs.  Well, I won’t list any more. You can look in your own garbage can and inventory for yourself how much good stuff youturned into garbage today.

Some of it, of course, will decompose. Dirty paper towels and used tissues and handfuls of dog hair and floor sweepings will, in time, turn back into dirt.

But what about the stuff that won’t? Plastic toys from McDonalds that only lasted half an hour. Broken hair clips.  Pretty foil wrapping paper. The used up ball point pens. And again, I bet you have a supply in your own garbage can that you can inventory. 

Lately, whenever I throw that stuff away, I realize that I’m taking the very ‘stuff’ of which the world is made and discarding it in a locked up form, just as if I were burying it in a big sealed casket. All the un-recyclable plastic was made from stuff that came from the earth. Ditto for the lightbulbs and the cheap mechanical pencils. But it’s not going to get back to being a useful part of the earth any time soon. It’s just going to sit there in a dump for a long, long time, being an empty ball point pen. Or a broken flash-light. Nothing can eat it, nothing can grow from it, nothing can break it down, at least not in the foreseeable future. The cracked CD cases. The extension cord with a short in it. The Barbie doll with no head. A hundred years from now, I think those are still going to be recognizable artifacts if anyone cares to dig them up.

So, I think about how much of that stuff my family makes. Despite my best efforts at being green, every week a truck dumps a 40 gallon container of my garbage somewhere. It’s not always full, and a good part of it is biodegradable. But there’s a good amount of ‘stuff’ in there that is not. So, every week my family and I are removing that much of the earth’s ‘stuff’ from circulation. Every week, by virtue of how we live, we lock up a certain amount of the earth’s resources that will not, in the foreseeable future, ever be used by another living creature.

You know, there has to be a tipping point. There has to be a point at which we will have locked up so much of the earth’s ‘stuff’ into non-biodegradable, non-recyclable,  stuff that there just won’t be enough stuff left for the earth’s natural cycle to continue. When I close my eyes and think about this, I visualize a plow turning up a furrow laden with broken ball point pens and old cd’s.   I don’t know how much stuff has to be taken out of natural circulation before the whole cycle grinds to a halt, but given that, big as it is, the earth’s resources are finite, that tipping point must exist. 

I wonder, sometimes, how far away it is.

No, I’m not saying the sky is falling. I’m not saying it’s going to happen in my life time, or by the time my great grand kids are grandparents themselves. I am saying that, from time to time, it’s good to look around and see how we live and think about that tipping point. To perhaps use a handkerchief instead of a box of tissue, or to put cloth napkins on my table every day. Maybe I should write with a pen I can refill.   Maybe I should use a dust mop with a head that can be washed instead of a ‘disposable’ head that is discarded with every use. I want to do the small, simple things that reduce the bucket of garbage that is hauled away from my alley every week. Not because some awful disaster is just lurking over the horizon, but because it’s what I should be doing.

I think we’ve had far too many disaster warnings. I was a freshman in college when the first Earth Day was declared. I remember that we were told we’d run out of oil by, well, it was sometime in the 1900’s. My roommate came home and threw her big box of Tide laundry detergent down the garbage shaft because Tide was polluting the ocean. It was my first real experience of people telling me, in a convincing way, that the earth was going to hell in a hand-basket if we didn’t change.

Trouble was, most of us didn’t change and the predicted disasters didn’t happen. Every year, I still hear about how many species are going extinct this year, how many acres of rainforest are going to disappear in the next fifteen minutes, how many years away we are from no more oil. It’s the stick that has been brandished far too often. Too many people don’t believe in it any more. So.  The End Is Near is not my message. My message is, “Clean up the bathroom after you’ve used it. And stop locking up resources that the next guy might need.”

That’s all.


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Commenting closes after 14 days


  • You are so intelligent and thought-provoking. I almost don’t feel worthy to even comment to you.

    I think we have run out of oil. M. King Hubbert, who correctly predicted the US oil supply peaking in 1970, predicted a global peak in 1995. But in the early 1970s and 1980s oil prices spiked due to embargos and geopolitical events which caused industrial societies to become more efficient in their use of it, so it pushed back the peak until now.

    We’re in a recession as a direct result of oil staying over a hundred dollars a barrel last summer. The only reason oil prices went down is because of the recession. As we get out of the recession demand for oil will go up again and the price will spike back up putting us into a worse recession than before, and it will be this gradually decline of ever increasing recessions from here on out.

    As for the whole recycling thing, I try not to do it. My dad was the opposite of yours and badgers me about washing cans and stuff out, so now I have an aversion to it. Kids do the opposite of what their parents do.

    And plastics may not biodegrade but they do photodegrade. That’s why I think the “Pacific Garbage patch”, you know that hundred mile wide stretch of floating plastics in the Pacific, I think that’s actually good because it will allow the sun to reach the plastics and photodegrade it. The earth has protection mechanisms in place like that.

  • nerwende says:

    I’ve always felt that the biggest difficulty in recycling and also just being a “good” consumer is knowing how to do it right. Most of the time there is no ideal way to do it, and often it’s really difficult to choose even the least harmful one. If I wash the cans before recycling, aren’t I wasting precious clean water? Would it be better to burn the milk cartons in the fireplace rather than have them transported in trucks to the place where the material is processed to be used again? Should I buy local vegetables during winter when they are grown in energy-consuming greenhouses, or the ones that are flown from the other side of the globe? This imperfection (if that’s the correct word) is of course just how things are in this planet and ecosystem while we humans are a part of it, no matter how correctly we try to live.
    I think I want to re-read Alien Earth now.