Trash talk

We Americans produce millions of tons of garbage every year. Disposal has become a great social problem, as more and more acreage is converted to landfills. Experts agree that, at the rate we're going, by the year 2026, we'll all be standing nose-deep in our own trash.

Your federal government is working hard to solve the rubbish "challenge," possibly by shooting all our old Milky Way wrappers into space. But left unaddressed is the problem on the front end, the one that affects every home: Who's responsible for making sure the trash goes into the vast disposal network in the first place?

All across America can be heard the familiar refrain: "Whose turn is it to take out the trash?" And across America, this plea is met by guilty silence. Often followed by muttered curses.

I take out the trash at my house. I have no choice. All the odds are stacked against me: 1) I'm the man. 2) I work at home all day. 3) If I wait for my two sons to do it, removing the trash will require heavy equipment.

Proper trash management requires planning and foresight and lying-awake-at-night scheming. You must allocate resources and budget time and effort. If you insist on involving the children, you'll also have a heavy personnel management load.

On Trash Day, the rolling bins look like robots -- R2-D2's tough older brothers -- lined up along the curb. Snorting, squealing garbage trucks come to empty them. Each bin is grabbed by a giant mechanical claw, lifted up over the truck and emptied, then set back down. It's a beautiful thing to watch. It's like the Mother Ship is gently lifting her babies to her shoulder one by one.
And burping them.

Trash to be recycled is picked up by a different truck, one with a nimble driver and no doors on the cab. One day, all we had waiting was one bag of aluminum cans. As my sons and I were leaving for school, we saw the garbage truck zoom past. The driver leaned out and snatched up the bag without slowing down. He pitched the bag over his shoulder, right into the truck's receptable. Another amazing feat. In a previous life, this guy must've been in the Pony Express.

Upon witnessing this, my sons shouted in unison, "Cool! When I grow up, I want to be a garbage man!"

The rolling robots are a good system, but they mean you can only throw out as much as you can cram into one. Any overflow has to wait until the next week. Improper trash management can put you in the hole, so eventually you have weeks' worth of leaking bags waiting their turns. Or, you're tiptoeing down the street late at night, sneaking bags into your neighbors' bins.

The expert trash manager learns to prioritize trash. Stinky stuff goes in first. Bags that contain paper and boxes and lawn refuse and other non-perishables line up on the runway and wait their turn to take off.

In the fall, we generate many heavy bags of fallen leaves. I stack the bags neatly next to the black dumpster, then filter them in as I have room. I see myself as the guy on a military airplane, the one who taps each paratrooper on the shoulder to tell him it's his turn to jump.
(This is not always a speedy process. Sometimes, I have to dust snow off the leaf bags before they finally head off to the dump.)

The root problem, of course, is we all generate too much non-recyclable trash in the first place. We have too much stuff, and we throw way too much of it away. Every product we buy is swathed in layers of cellophane and cardboard and childproof plastic. And it all has to be thrown out.

The perfect example: At Christmas, we wrap each overly packaged gift in another layer of paper and stick bows and ribbons and other potential trash items all over it. Then, on Christmas morning, we merrily generate a big pile of garbage.

I already have a plan for getting rid of mine. Should be finished by spring.

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