We may be running out of landfill space in the West, but not because of me. I’m a packrat.
I spent summers in eastern Montana with my grandparents, who lived in an apartment above a department store. I spent the warm days rummaging through trash bins in the alley behind the store, and then I’d set up pretend offices in refrigerator crates and arrange my treasures. I carted boxes of stuff up the stairs into my grandparents’ home. I referred to this as my “good garbage.”
Since then, the sight of an overflowing Dumpster has become irresistible. In fact, I often take my bags of garbage out to the Dumpster in the alley behind my house and come back with more than I took out.
I can’t resist cardboard boxes and bubble wrap. I have a new neighbor who buys a lot of stuff online, and he’s been very helpful about putting bubble wrap and other packing materials on my porch so that I don’t have to fish them out of the Dumpster. This is a boon since I’ve started selling on online auctions, and packing materials are expensive.
Several friends who are not addicted to saving stuff have happily given me their rejected items. This has added to my clutter problem, but I’ve saved some lovely things from the landfill. I also find incredible stuff in the garbage. I’ve found clothes and shoes that are practically unworn and still look great. Why were they thrown into the Dumpster and not donated to a local thrift shop? This seems like selfish consumerism.
Finding books is particularly distressing. I’ve been a bookworm all my life and have come to regard books as almost sacred. Whether or not I want to read them is irrelevant -- I just know there’s someone somewhere who would enjoy the books.
I’ve found unbroken dishes and hand-painted pottery, and I’ve found family photo albums dating back to the turn of the last century-- yes, the 1 890s. Think of the loss of local history. I’ve passed it all on: Civil War relics, old tools, pop bottles and other bottles have sold well and found their way into the hands of grateful collectors. A 1942 car radio in amazing condition, its dashboard buttons intact, was saved from the landfill and, after much enthusiastic bidding, found its way to a delighted car restorer in Tennessee.
I’m amazed when I find towels in a Dumpster. Don’t towels have a definite life cycle? Initially, they match the decor and are trotted out when company comes. After a few washings, they become daily-use towels. When a stain can’t be removed or an edge becomes frayed, they stand handy if the washer overflows, or they can be pushed against the bottom of a drafty door. At the next stage, they line a pet carrier for a trip to the veterinarian. They can be carried in the trunk of the car in case of a roadside emergency. Several years ago I was in a car accident, and a kind woman stopped and gave me a towel she carried in her car for just such an emergency -- of course, I still have the towel.
At their final stage, they are cut into pieces and used for polishing silver and other messy tasks. Then the small pieces, hopelessly stained and not worth washing, finally become garbage and are thrown away, reluctantly and with a nod of gratitude for years of service. But a whole towel thrown away? Never.
I think you could say that I find the concept of garbage a mystery. At what point does an object become garbage? Why is something garbage to one person and a treasure to another? Throwing things away has always been gut-wrenching for me. How could something that I ever considered a treasure suddenly become garbage?
I see magazines with blurbs on the cover about conquering clutter. I eagerly turn to the article hoping to find some helpful advice, only to find the suggestion that I use old ice-cube trays to organize my earrings. There’s nothing about how to deal with a three-foot-high stack of old magazines that are still as interesting to me as they were the day they arrived in my mailbox.
Here’s a tip: Next time you throw something Into the trash, try to think outside the Dumpster. How about giving your old magazines to a neighbor who perhaps can’t afford to buy them at the newsstand? How about taking books and magazines to a nursing home or hospital? Could what you’re throwing away be donated, reused, recycled, or sold at online auction?
Think: Does it really belong in a landfill?
Jeannie Pomeroy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and collects in Raton, New Mexico.