At the end of the semester in my quaint college town, a spring ritual of sorts takes place. (I know, I know. Spring rituals in college towns are rarely a good thing!) It is a holiday dedicated to the gods of consumption and waste, called “Move out day.” This day takes place the same day as graduation, and after graduation ceremonies, students and their families eagerly pack their cars and whisk themselves off to unknown destinations. Unfortunately, not everything that they brought, or bought here, goes with them. In fact, the primary activity of the move out day ritual is making one’s sizable offering of new and lightly used goods on the sidewalk or in a series of dumpsters and then to drive off into the sunset.
As you walk up and down the streets in the aftermath of this ritual, the carnage and enormity it can be overwhelming. To give you a sense of it, I’ll post two lists from friends and the “haul” they got from move-out day:
“End of the semester means move out day! This year’s haul includes a Weber grill, a metal bathroom shelf, an IKEA shelf unit, brand new Tefal fry pans, new cutting boards, a six month supply of laundry soap and fabric softener, clothes, a fan, a folding chair, and two bikes.”
“I got two boxes full of dishes, a leather rolling chair, two brand new garbage cans, a sound system, two digital voice recorders, an Xbox with 5 games and controllers, a almost new scanner/printer unit, a vintage metal chair, a whole bag of clothing with the tags still on, three pairs of jeans, towels, crystal plates and cups, a box full of plates and cups, two small throw rugs, a wooden jewelry box…and probably some things I forgot.”
I think these two lists help you get the picture–this is not ordinary garbage, but a ton of perfectly good stuff, or brand new stuff, that for whatever reason, students no longer want in their lives.
Each of these items have a cost: an environmental cost, a social cost, a financial cost. So many resources–directly from the living earth–natural materials, fossil fuels and the associated environmental tolls, environmental pollution from extraction sites, factory waste and runoff. Further, the social cost is also often extreme: workers and their families, near-slave labor in factories, chemical poisoning of workers, birth defects, poverty, and more. When we think about these costs, and the cycle of purchasing and disposal, it is very hard to see mounds and mounds of stuff going completely unused go to the dump. At the dump, it has a final environmental cost as it slowly decays, especially with all of those electronics leeching heavy metals. I don’t think that students participating in their spring ritual really think about what I’ve outlined here–it is the simplest action just to leave stuff on the curb on your way home.
I’m not going to go into there reasons this happens (see my earlier post on “disposing of the disposable mindset“) but instead, with the inspiration of permaculture ethics, I’m going to share the inspirational story of the Trash-to-Treasure fairy.
The typical response to those on the sidelines of this spring ritual are: 1) ignore it is going on and go about your business; 2) shake your head and move along; or, 3) take advantage of it to see what stuff you can salvage, use, and take off the streets. I have found myself most often in the 3rd category, and I never considered taking it a step further. In fact, there are a lot of people out and about during the move out day ritual, participating in a counter-ritual of sorts, sorting through the piles and looking for stuff they can use (hence the lists above). Others are scrappers, looking to see what metal they can salvage to scrap for bit of cash. In fact, I have a lot of nice new dishes here, including an awesome enamel saucepan, from this year’s haul. I was personally not going out much, because, shamefully, I didn’t want to be seen as the professor digging through students’ garbage. And then, I saw what the Trash-to-Treasure fairy did, and in the upcoming years, I have decided that I am going to put that sentiment behind me in the future and take his lead. And maybe solicit the help of some others in furthering the cause.
The trash-to-treasure fairy, summoned by the spring move out ritual, decided that none of the three typical responses above were sufficient–and they aren’t. The first responses two allow a problem to happen,and don’t do anything about it other than have a non-response or levy judgement. The third response is much better in that some of what would otherwise wasted goes to use, but its also a very personal response problem, in that the larger problem still remains. But still, 95% of what is thrown away is still going to thrown away, going to the landfill to spend 2000 years or more decomposing.
The fourth option, which the Trash-to-treasure fairy enacted, was using a different set of ethics: the permaculture ethics of earth care, fair share, as well as the design principles of “produce no waste” and “the problem is the solution.” In simple terms–because everything that is on the curb came from the earth, and the fairy honors the earth, he decided he wasn’t going to let it go back so easily. And so, he began working his magic. The fairy spent a number of hours filling his car with anything he found that was perfectly good and made runs to one of the local thrift stores. He selected his store very carefully, avoiding one of the national chains, but a local place with more sound ethics, who directly put on the floor what is donated, and who directly feed the needy with the sales. The thrift store manager was thrilled to see carloads of perfectly fine dishes, brand new clothing with the tags on, video game consoles, fans, and more–and often of a higher quality than the typical used donations. The fairy’s blessing extends to the shoppers, of all walks of life, that visit that particular store. This simple solution was able to do car-loads more good than bringing it to your house or turning away from the problem.
I’m also inspired in another sense to take the Trash-to-Treasure fairy’s actions a few steps further. For one, it seems that in the future, perhaps we can encourage the thrift stores to be there, in person, with donation trucks and make it really convenient for students to make a donation to their store instead of the curb. (We are in a small town, all of the stores are within 2 miles of where this is happening…but still, a lot of people can’t be bothered to drop stuff off on the edges of town). I’m also wondering if more education and a push by the university could help move more of this so-called “waste” into the hands of people who need it. I think there are lots of possibilities here, and I am thankful to have been so inspired by the Trash-to-Treasure fairy and to share this with all of you.
The Trash-to-Treasure fairy wasn’t content to take only what he needed, and instead, took it a step further. He stopped thinking about himself and his own needs, and instead, thought about the good of the earth and the community. I am inspired to continue and extend this tradition and help reduce the waste produced by my own campus community. The following week, a very similar spring ritual of my hometown, where my parents live, was taking place: “spring clean up” and I went with the trash-to-treaure fairy to see what we could salvage and give away. So many of us have an opportunity each day to do these little, yet powerful things. May the inspiration of the trash-to-treasure fairy be ever-present in your life!