Monday, April 30, 2012

Garbage In, Garbage Out

In the land of long ago and far away, there wasn’t quite so much trash as there is now. This was the quaint land of my youth.

Even by the frugal standards of my childhood as the offspring of Depression-groomed parents - with the added bonus of having grown up fatherless (my father) or the child of immigrants (my mother) – were the waste not, want not type.

For starters, nothing got junked until it was deemed irreparable by a repairman, and, believe me, they weren’t in the business of declaring something irreparable until it was.

The concept of built in obsolescence just did not exist. The television set would pretty much have to explode before it was replaced.

Tossing something perfectly good out for the new model? Hah!

When I was in high school and got my license, I remember making any number of trips to the guy on Cambridge Street who fixed nothing but irons, and who also sold an iron caddy of his own invention.

While appliances were an obvious arena where things have changed, frugality did not stop there.

My mother recycled wrapping paper, a practice I, too, carried on until I gave a friend her birthday present wrapped in the paper she’d given me my present in a few months earlier. After that, I concluded that gift wrap was but a minor waste.

My mother also recycled Christmas cards into gift tags, and, needless to say, bows were reused until they were completely and utterly bedraggled.

And don’t get me going on hand-me-downs.

Forget kids being brand conscious. Plenty of my hand-me-downs came from a cousin who was 9 years older, so the styles were completely out of date.

Craftv was a good word to describe my mother. Crisco cans, cleaned out and painted up, made good button boxes – very cute when you glued buttons on them, by the way.  If you think there’s not much you can do with a tuna can, think again. Trim them with clothespins and paint the shebang up and you’ve got yourself a planter. Sort of. Obviously, you couldn’t put anything with deep roots in it, but you could certainly use it to hold plastic ivy.

In general, people in the olden days just didn’t produce as much trash. A) We didn’t have as much stuff to begin with; B) Things didn’t come over-packaged, boxed within all this Styrofoam and plastic. We didn’t have bottled water, and we didn’t take doggie bags home in throw away faux Tupperware. (If you went out to dinner, which you didn’t, left overs came home wrapped in tin foil.)  And although we didn’t call it recycling, we recycled.

Sure, we burned trash in our backyard – my favorite chore, by the way: in winter, I’d wrap myself in one of my father’s old Navy blankets and warm myself over the fire, pretending I was a World War II DP. But newspapers and magazines were saved up for Boy Scout paper drives.

There may have been rag drives, as well, but rags were mostly saved for cleaning. Handi-wipes? Paper towels? You must be kidding. (I will say that I was fortunate to have missed the era that gave the term ‘on the rag’ it’s literal meaning.)

As for newspapers, you did reserve some to bundle your garbage – egg shells, banana peels, coffee grounds – into. Once bundled, you tied the garbage up with a string and placed it in your garbage can. None of this bulging Hefty Bag nonsense. (My least favorite chore was garbage related. If flies got into your garbage, which they inevitably did come summer, you had to use the hose and bleach to get rid of the maggots.)

You could bring your bottles and cans to the dump, or you could pay the “can man” to take them away. Our “can man”, Archie L., also ran an antique shop of sorts, which was more or less a junk shop with a sign that said “antiques” on it. What Archie did with the cans and bottles, I haven’t a clue. But our family of seven probably disposed of fewer cans and bottles in the course of a month than a much smaller household of today does. (After all, those tuna and Crisco cans had other uses.)

If we produce nothing else, today’s Americans produce trash, about seven pounds a day, which annually, across the population, accumulates to:

  • 19 billion pounds of polystyrene peanuts
  • 40 billion plastic knives, forks and spoons
  • 28 billion pounds of food
  • Enough steel to level and restore Manhattan


  • Trash has become America's leading export: mountains of waste paper, soiled cardboard, crushed beer cans and junked electronics. China's No. 1 export to the U.S. is computers, according the Journal of Commerce. The United States' No. 1 export to China, by number of cargo containers, is scrap.

More stunningly:

  • American communities on average spend more money on waste management than on fire protection, parks and recreation, libraries or schoolbooks, according to U.S. Census data on municipal budgets.

Michael Speiser operates a bulldozer at the Puente Hills Landfill in LA, which in 60 years has grown to 500 feet high.

"More people should see what I see here…Everything that's advertised on TV ends up [here] sooner or later, and a lot sooner that most people think."

The good news is that the methane given off by the decomposing garbage is being powering 70,000 homes. The bad news is that these are homes where the junk advertised on TV is presumably bought and discarded.

And so it goes.


Data/excerpt source: Wall Street Journal.

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