Magazine | April 16, 2012, Issue

Trash Talking

Urban garbage goes down a chute, or is carried, to the basement of the apartment building, whence, by a process most of us do not understand, it ends up on Staten Island. (Garbage trucks, one would think from their name, play a role.) In the country we are more intimate with our own detritus.

My town has a transfer station — universally called the dump — and unless you pay for a service to pick up your waste, you must take it there yourself. Once upon a time the dump was a smoldering slope southeast of town where people simply pitched everything, releasing smoke and toxins into the pure mountain air. But even the country is green now, and we recycle, though the dump is still a funky place.

The categories into which we sort are glass, metal, paper, plastic, free stuff, and unsortable. Every bag of unsortable costs a small charge to leave; you pay with tickets, which may be purchased at the town hall or the dump itself (checks only — which suggests someone once skimmed the cash). “Bag” is construed loosely: As many bags as you can stuff into a contractor bag and seal with a twist-tie counts as only one. Everything else, glass and the rest of it, can be left off gratis.

The dump sits off the main road in a section where there are still a few farms. The garbage Magi pull up to a trailer where we give our tickets to the man on duty, then fan out over an area the size of a parking lot.

The bags of unsortable get heaved into a mouth with a crushing metal jaw that tamps them down. (Using anything means unwrapping; throwing away inaugurates a long process of rewrapping.) Glass, metal, paper, and plastic each go to their own dumpsters. The glass dumpster is filled with bottles and jars: beer, wine, vinegar, soy sauce; brown glass, green glass, clear glass; Chateau this, 12 oz. that. Tipping a bin of bottles out onto a shoal of their fellows makes a sound like sleigh bells or spring peepers. I wonder if other dump users feel the same compunction I do about actually breaking the glass? The metal dumpster is the most heterogeneous. Stoves, fridges, and the Maytag that finally broke down are left elsewhere. But the metal dumpster might contain anything from a rusted fender to a length of gutter pipe. The dumpsters for paper and plastic mock hope and change. We may all be online, but there is still a lot of paper in the world — the Paper of Record, the Paper of Sensation, local papers, penny savers, Who Was Jesus? slid under your front door by polite Jehovah’s Witnesses on the off chance that you might not be damned. Plastics, there’s a great future in it, and it turns out to be here.

#page#Finally, on the way out, is the depository for the free stuff — a few display tables, fronting a dark, dank shed. Here come the things, unwanted but not quite destroyed, that someone else might want. Dirty plates; ratty old Sesame Street characters; socks; furniture; a string of Mardi Gras beads. Sometimes you luck out, and I have been both the blesser and the blessed. I have left items that have been snatched up before I got back in my car and turned the ignition; conversely, a chest of drawers, minus only two drawers, migrated from the free stuff to our bedroom, where it served for years. Sharper eyes than mine have spotted stuff in the free stuff that reappeared at yard sales. It is exchange without money, the ideal of OWS. On the shed wall hangs a sign: THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING WITH US.

So much for junk, the kind of thing that the mound builders left in middens. What about food waste? A balanced mid-century breakfast might have been ham and eggs, coffee and orange juice. But we do not eat the gristle, the shells, the grounds, or the peels. In the country this goes out to the compost.

I grew up in a suburb and moved to a city; the only people I had ever known, and they were not many, who spoke of compost seemed vaguely nuts, probably also obsessed with bodily fluids. But in the country composting is a fact of life. We use a basic three-bin system: two for turning the scraps back and forth; a third for sifting the broken-down residue into its garden-usable form. Disputes of Sunni/Shiite ferocity rage over whether or not to compost meat; we do. I also add grass clippings, autumn leaves, and ash from the fireplace. My wife sends away for a starter enzyme, I guess it is, which gets the compost cooking. When you are done you have dark brown fluff that almost looks edible (if you go to restaurants like that).

There is something magical about composting, both primal and sleight-of-hand, but it is also tedious. In winter the piles freeze and you let them sit. But from now until Thanksgiving I have to go out there with a pitchfork and turn the stuff over and over; then I pull on gloves and rub the almost-fluff through the wire-mesh screen atop bin number three, flicking out stones and twigs as I go. It’s like Sutter’s Mill, without the gold. The gold comes after it is wheelbarrowed down to the garden and spread on the beds, where beans and tomatoes ensue. At the end of the season the old vines go back again for an encore.

Two warnings. Too much meat — something you forgot in the freezer — can breed maggots. Don’t worry, they go away. Watch for live coals. I once dumped some on mullein stalks, and half an hour later they were smoking.

My bins have never attracted bears, but little paws and beaks sift through when my back is turned. I once found a T-bone on my driveway. It is the animals’ free stuff.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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