Thursday, April 7, 2011

Owning Garbage

Walking the streets of Manhattan last year I was flabbergasted by the mountains of garbage that spilled across the sidewalks. I don’t know how often the garbage trucks pick up but I’m guessing it is more than once a week. Looking at those piles it seemed impossible to me that people could feel a sense of individual responsibility for what was headed off the island. So many people, such a small space, so much garbage. I hear take out is a common meal plan there…what does that mean for daily container trash alone? I also noticed a huge barge full of garbage leaving the island across the skyline in front of the Statue of Liberty.

When I lived in Victoria, BC in the early nineties there was a one can per week limit for each household before you had to pay for extra garbage pick up (the truck came every other week for two cans). This made people accountable for the amount of garbage that they put out on the curb each week. It seemed to force everyone into making sure they didn’t throw out things that could otherwise be reused, recycled or relocated (preferably not in a ditch somewhere).

In my own municipality of Bristol, Quebec, we bring our own garbage to dump. By handling and transporting every bit of waste that we throw away, it is easy to know the burden we bear on the landfill. We have recently undergone changes with how our garbage is handled. A law was passed that no longer allowed the local dumps to burn or bury garbage. We started to get a limited number of bags to use in a year and our taxes were raised to support a system of carrying the garbage off to another place. We had to pay for any additional large item refuse. As a result the amount of recyclables in the recycling bins increased. Composting became something worth trying. People found ways to reduce what they threw in the trash. Similar to the increase in the use of cloth grocery bags when stores started charging for bags, people changed when there was a direct cost associated with their choices.

At the same time, Ottawa, the nearest city to us started a compost collection program. More and more, our litter is being separated so that less and less ends up in a landfill somewhere. In addition to reusable cloth bags, stainless steel water bottles or coffee cups are not ‘alternative’ anymore. Finally I’m no longer a freak. At least in these small ways.

Around here we try to make our operations exist in a closed system wherever possible. This basically means that we minimize the amount of byproducts that come of our efforts. We try to reuse whatever we can and throw away as little as possible. The trick is to not fill the barns and sheds, and the spaces in between as dumping grounds for things that we might possibly use one day. But one great example of this is compost. It is so incredibly rewarding to watch the vegetable and fruit scraps that were piled in wind rows with the straw and manure from our barns and wintering yards turn to dark, rich soil that we can spread onto our fields.

When it comes to the food we grow, we use as much of what we harvest as we can. Some scraps get fed back to the animals who then poop on our pastures in summer. The fields are then improved and fed back to our animals as grass or hay. Around and around it goes.

We buy second hand things because we simply believe there is enough stuff in the world already. If all the perfectly good stuff headed into landfills was lined up and distributed among us we would still find we had far more stuff than we needed. Yet it is so common to seek out brand new lovely things to fill our spaces. Sometimes this is necessary. Sometimes it is not.

I personally have decided that I need to take responsibility for the footprint that I leave on this earth. Not because I think there is a right and wrong way to be. It is because I feel compelled to leave things better than they were when I arrived. I am tired of being so dependent on so many things that give back so little. I have forgotten what is real and what is superficial.

It will be a long way to creating a microcosm that truly offers more than it takes – perhaps I won’t even manage this in my lifetime.

But I wish to try. I wish to own my garbage. Starting at the moment that I buy something and send the message to the manufacturer and distributor and retailer that they should keep making said thing because I contributed to it leaving the shelf. I want to be responsible for the entire life cycle of the things in my life.

I will fail at this. There is so much more to learn. But as always, being aware is the first step.


  1. The Girl Scouts had a motto expressed at camp outs and that was "to leave a place better than when you arrived." I try to live it and repeat it often to my children and grandchildren. For years we had to go to dump. Now we have 1 can picked up once a month. Like you, I don't handle waste very well. Great encouragement.

    P.S. But my brown paper bag? I'll put one over my head and weep if I lose that multi use compostable item.

  2. Your comment made me think that not liking waste is really just the flip side to wanting everything to be useful. So instead of being garbage-lovers, we could be seen as people who love things to go to good use! Even those plastic toys in the world that I wish had never been made, I'm happy to at least make them useful since I can't prevent that they had been made in the first place. If I don't buy them new in packaging, then I really like that they are staying out of a landfill. I often think about picking up those rogue shoes on the highway in hopes of finding a match one day...but now that's a bit much I know! :)

  3. About the rogue shoes? You gotta check out this posting from Window on the Prairie. I think you might find matches for all those rogues on the highway 8)


***thanks for stopping by...I look forward to hearing from you!***