Our Dumpsters, Ourselves

Written in April 2012.  I came up the title and needed SOMETHING to match it!


When conservative pundits caricature progressive, ecologically-minded urbanists as hothoused wealthy elites, I can’t help but laugh: I fit the profile as far as a college degree goes, but I’ve also spent more time in a dumpster than I ever anticipated at my Georgetown graduation and, sometimes, I’ve eaten ketchup packets for dinner.


We’ll get back to the ketchup thing later.  The dumpsters — it started when I worked with Habitat for Humanity.  One day my site supervisor tasked me with ensuring that the mountainous pile of cast-off lumber and sheetrock fit properly into its green metal container, so like the twenty-two-year-old badass that I once was I climbed in, revved up a circular saw, and bent a gigantic mound of trash to my will.  My photo on the staff page of my current employer’s website is of me sitting kinglike atop compressed leaves and branches and clippings in a green waste bin — I spent an entire day directing volunteers in the technique of proper dumping, and it was awesome.  Unlike some of my other poverty-addled environmentalist brethren, I’ve never actually dumpster-dived; no, my time in dumpsters has been spent in the seemingly eco-antithetical act of putting things in, not keeping them out, but I’ve still learned some lessons from it.


Most of my dumpstering experience thus far has been purely professional (you try working in a construction-related field and not learning a thing or two), but recently, things got personal.  I’ve never been one to have a lot of stuff — even as a kid, I relished the compactness of my closet — and that trait, compounded with general young-adult transience and the fact that I spent most of 2008 living out of my car (and occasionally dining on free condiments), has always kept my personal dump-quotient to a minimum.  But I’ve been living at the same address for a year and a half now, and although it’s a one-bedroom apartment shared with two other people, permanence has enabled stuff to settle and collect with a vastness that my prior vagabonding made impossible.  Also, my roommates have so much crap that sometimes I want to light it all on fire just to have it out of the way — not everyone, it turns out, adapts well to small-space living, but they’re working on it.


Even those of us committed to living lightly, however, can find ourselves with big problems that end only in a dumpster.  Recently, I picked up a new mattress (well, new to me — I got it off the Craigslist free section) to replace the one I’d had for over two years, a memory foam hand-me-down from a friend who’d moved back to Texas in 2010.  Regular flipping had staved off the development of permanent dents for some time but over the last eight months or so I had found myself sleeping in an indestructible foam crater, reappearing no matter how strenuously I flipped or rotated.  Replacement, I finally acknowledged, was my only option, although with the victory of a free Craigslist conquest came a startling question: what the hell does a person do with a yellowed, compressed, used foam mattress?


Sure, there are a couple of recycling programs out there, but most are run through manufacturers (not much of an option when your mattress is second-hand) and, as it happens, even the progressive Bay Area doesn’t offer anything in the way of alternatives.  My options were twofold– a dumpster or a giveaway — and I just didn’t feel quite comfortable pawning off the source of my recurring back pain on somebody else.  Sometimes one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, but sometimes, no matter how much we upcycle or downcycle or recycle or freecycle, crap is just crap.


So I hacked the foam mattress into pieces with a serrated blade, and into the dumpster it went — there was some other garbage in there already so it fit less than neatly, the sort of job I wouldn’t find acceptable if I were loading the dumpster from the start.  When I run dumpster crews, I often surprise volunteers with the suggestion that hauling and tossing trash is a task which actually requires skill and strategy — after all, we’re trained to stop thinking at the word “trash.”  No wonder most folks find it difficult or impossible to envision the scale, logistics, and impact of landfills or Pacific garbage patches: if a twenty-cubic-yard metal container at a construction site or streetcorner or park cleanup day is already regarded as a black hole of refuse, how are we possibly to make sense of what happens to our waste even further afield?


As I shoved my old mattress into my apartment’s dumpster, I couldn’t help but reflect on William McDonough’s eco-classic Cradle to Cradle — in that moment of doing battle with hunks of memory foam it was tempting to think that the problem was in its disposal, but the real issue — the one McDonough articulates so clearly — was that the mattress wasn’t built for reuse in the first place.  My friend had purchased it new less than five years ago, and now it was all but useless; she’d bought it on some great sale, but how good of a deal is anything that doesn’t last — and, moreover, that can’t be put to new life once its time has come?  My new box spring was previously used by a now-deceased old woman who had it for decades, and if it craps out on me I can at least cut it open and reclaim the lumber from its frame.  Memory foam, on the other hand, looks awesome in the ads, but in my experience it has been less than promised, just another piece of junk to add to the garbage patch.


But I know (albeit on a small scale) the effort that garbage-management requires, and despite the claims of marketers across the country, there is no piece of junk that is truly easy to dispose of.  If only we all got to spend a little more time hanging out in dumpsters, then maybe we might spend a little less time buying — and making — the kind of tossed-away stuff that fills so many of them.


Four years later: still love a good round of garbage Tetris.  This one holds up.

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