Today I took out the garbage for the first time.
You might be thinking, “Okay . . . so what?” Or, “Why are you wasting a blog post to talk about garbage?” Trust me, I didn’t think I would be blogging about trash, either.
This is a picture of my dumpster, if you will. You’ll notice that there are no metal trash cans, no wheeled plastic garbage bins, nor a big industrial dumpster. There’s definitely not a separate place for recycling. In all honesty, it just looks like a bunch of garbage that someone threw on the ground.
And that’s exactly what it is.
When I take out the garbage in the U.S., I separate the recyclables from the trash. I rinse out the cans and bottles and collapse the cardboard boxes. I neatly tie up all the trash in plastic bag. I carry the garbage bag out to the side of the house, where three different wheeled trash cans await: one for trash, one for recycling, and one for yard waste. I open the lid, toss my bag on top of the others, and shut the lid. Once a week, I wheel the trash can down the driveway and leave it on the curb. When I’m away at school or at work, a garbage truck comes and empties the can, carting all my trash away. I come home, check to make sure the trash can is empty, and wheel it back up the driveway to start the cycle again.
When I took out the garbage here, I didn’t separate the recyclables from the trash. I didn’t bundle up the garbage into a nice, neat bag. I grabbed the bucket of compost from under my kitchen sink, the small plastic garbage can from my living room/bedroom, and the other plastic garbage can from my bathroom. I carried them outside, past the two homes next to mine, and around the back of the building, near the pig pen, where a shallow pit, blackened from fires past, awaited. I hesitated, thoroughly uncomfortable with what I was about to do. And then I dumped the contents of all three of my garbage cans on to the ground.
When I took out the garbage here, I could literally see the impact that my actions and my waste had on the environment. And it’s pretty sickening. In the U.S., we are so removed from our waste. In the neighborhood where I grew up, no one had to cart their own garbage to the dump. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the place where my garbage disappears to. All of the garbage cans in my neighborhood have lids on them so that we don’t have to see the trash. We even line the garbage cans in our homes with bags so that the can doesn’t get dirty. The garbage trucks come when we’re gone, so that when we come home, we don’t have to spare the trash a second thought. It’s just gone. Taken care of. Out of sight, out of mind.
Here, most people burn their garbage. If it doesn’t get burned, it piles up—in yards, on sidewalks, along the roads. Waste is never “out of sight, out of mind” because you always see it. In America, we would call this ever-present garbage littering. We would call it pollution. We would call it gross, dirty, and unsanitary. We would probably assume it’s an environmentally irresponsible method of waste disposal. But, how different is it really from what happens to our garbage in the U.S.? Sure, our roads are relatively clean, the sidewalks are pretty clear aside from the occasional piece of litter, and people’s yards are generally garbage-free. But our garbage doesn’t just disappear. The garbage collectors don’t wave their magic wands over the containers at the end of driveways, and poof! the trash vanishes into thin air. They bring it somewhere. All of those containerfuls of nice, neat plastic bags from hundreds and hundreds of houses—guess what? They pile up. Just like the garbage does here. I’ll admit, I don’t know exactly what we do with all the garbage in the U.S.; burn it, compress it, bury it, and maybe reuse some of it? We can’t get rid of it all, though. It piles up somewhere. In huge amounts. We just forget about it because we don’t see it.
Did you know that, according to the EPA (and this really cool infographic they published), the average American produces 4.4 pounds of waste per day? That means, on average, each person produces 1,606 pounds (almost a ton) of waste each year. That’s ridiculous. And nobody wants to think about that. Nobody wants to face how much damage they personally do to the planet. I know I don’t. It’s so much easier, so much more comfortable, not to spare my garbage a second thought after I wheel it down to the curb.
But if I created that much waste here, my own two hands would be dumping 30.8 pounds worth of garbage directly on to the earth every week.
I’m not saying that I think every person in the U.S. should have to carry their own garbage to the dump. I’m not saying we should start burning our own trash in our backyards. I’m not saying we should do away with garbage trucks altogether so that we’re forced to face our waste.
All I’m saying is that maybe our garbage is worth a second thought, no matter how uncomfortable that second thought might make us.