Earth Notes: Dump picking was recycling

164ASP944757289-443By Price Hutchins

A lot can be learned from how we alter our image of the world around us just by the words we use. In a generation the terms toxic waste, transfer station and waste management, have replaced pollution, the dump and the garbage man.

Today, the image of scavenging at the dump conjures images with the third world garbage piles populated with feral dogs and children picking out edible morsels. But in the summers of the 1960s, dump picking for me was an adventure and a shopping trip. We vacationed on an island off of Freeport. The island had a dump at one end. This was a real dump. It was always on fire. It contained garbage, broken stuff and stuff that was just unwanted. But, even wealthy occupants of the island thought of visiting the dump for something essential before heading “off Island” to find it. I don’t remember if we gave a thought to tetanus and I do remember finding a perfectly good torque wrench and an engine block the size of a car. Today that island, way out in Casco Bay, is still without electricity or landlines, but the dump is closed and off limits. Garbage is collected and hauled back to the mainland on a barge for proper handling.

Gone are the days when the dump supplied the raw materials for forts and tree houses, and bolts or carburetor parts might be picked off a heap of scrap metal. I suppose rats and seagulls will always hover over and around landfills and transfer stations. Even in the old dump setting they were considered vermin, but they were doing their own sort of dump picking too — recycling of a more organic type.

It was smelly back then. The waste stream did not exactly stop at the high tide line. If the breeze was offshore the house smelled of grimy smoke. The golf course that exists where the old dump once was probably lies just above a vast array of nasty things. It was far from an idyllic system. But, today so much of the process is removed from each of us. Leftovers are packed into tidy bags with drawstrings. The bags disappear into some type of maw and our discards never appear before us again. They are forgotten. Our connection to them neatly undone. So as much as we are educated about recycling and reducing, the system now draws a tidy curtain between us and the issues.

As we recycle more and are more aware of the waste stream and our role in it, aren’t we also increasing the toxicity of the landfill we still employ? More and more its contents are the things we just can’t reuse and which are truly toxic. No energetic 12-year-old boy could find anything in the pile today but plastic shards and heavy metals. I hear that the containers we fill up at our local transfer station are picked over by professionals and much of the contents recycled. But, professionals cannot out-do a 12-year-old boy in repurposing. This is probably why there are so many fewer cobbled together go-carts around now than there were in the 60s.

Not to put too fine a point on this subject, but those handsome old rock walls scattered about western Maine that we admire and protect are refuse. Farmers in the 19th century preferred to mark their boundaries with wooden fences or brush. Those lovingly maintained stone edifices are the refuse from backbreaking manual clearing of glacial tailings. They didn’t purposefully dig them up just to create a beautiful landmark. They were merely tossing them to the edge of the field to be rid of them. Saving all my two-liter pet bottles to create a boundary wall on my land today is not too far a stretch from clearing an acre back in 1840. Years from now — long after our neighbors have died of embarrassment — homeowners will adore the colors, marvel over an odd unopened cola, and inspect the faded Mountain Dew and Polar Seltzer labels. Why, the historical society will schedule tours and the town will prohibit tourists from picking at my bottle wall. My antecedents will speak of me with awe. Someone else could create a fence of discarded computer monitors. People from away might forsake leaf peeping just to get on a bus and tour Lovell’s many PET walls and monitor monuments.

Go ahead. Disregard me as an old guy who has nothing to say that doesn’t start with, “in the old days…” but I’m not certain we have really figured out the real waste stream — recycling locally — reducing thing. Filling a pantry up with plastic shopping bags that you saved after grocery shopping is not — I repeat-not —recycling, not effective and short sighted. I have at least 20 yards of great soil created by years of dedicated composting and I can’t find a home for it. Most towns now have signs posted at the transfer station prohibiting picking. I would advocate that the contents of the dump are the property of the residents until they have thoroughly picked it over. What is more proper than a 12-year-old boy wading through trash searching for a steering wheel for a go-cart?

Before pulling the drawstrings on this week’s trash, sort through it again and then drop it off at your neighbors so they can have a shot at it. Keep an eye out for the socket set that goes with the torque wrench will ya?

Price Hutchins is at the peak of a mediocre career. This career includes restaurant owner, carpenter, toilet paper salesperson, stay at home dad, chemical salesman, entrepreneur and Home Depot associate. Price and his wife, Ann, have returned to Lovell while they continue the renovation of their house.

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