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Doyle: Golden Age Of Garbage

Vermont’s new universal recycling law, the first phase of which went into effect this past summer, says that by the year 2020, anything we throw away that can be composted or recycled must be. It can’t end up in a landfill. That’s a good thing; but it’s gotten me feeling a bit nostalgic because I’m old enough to remember the golden age of the Vermont dump.

When I was ten, I’d hop on my bike and ride out of Sutton village to our town dump where I could find perfectly good radios that just needed a new vacuum tube or two; bottle caps for my collection; and other assorted treasures that people were actually crazy enough to throw away - including what I was sure was a piece of space junk too big to move. In retrospect, it might have just been an old Ashley wood furnace.

The dumpster behind the school also had some nice finds: discarded text books, and once, a collection of flutophones.
To a child, dumps offered endless opportunities for discovery and imaginative possibility. So much so, that when my grandfather threatened to throw me in the dump if I didn’t behave, I was hopeful.

Years later, when we lived in Manhattan, those childhood experiences were vivid enough to entice me to a gathering of dedicated nonconformists who met monthly above a Korean deli on 37th street. This group, despite their aversion to organization, called themselves freegans, and asserted that American society was so wasteful in its conspicuous consumption that it was possible to live on what others threw away. I was skeptical, but then I met a high school science teacher from Brooklyn who hadn’t bought any food for six years - instead, she stocked her fridge with what the bodegas, restaurants, and supermarkets in the city threw away. Now I’m not saying I actually ate the cold cuts churned up during my one memorable night of deli dumpster diving, but I have to admit their harvest included some pretty good looking food: lots of prepackaged wraps, pasta salad, even arugula!

That same time, I was attending graduate school in the West Village where the department head taught a course on garbage. In her post-structuralist take on refuse, she argued that our relationship with garbage is a social and political discourse. What people discard, hide, burn, or bury as unwanted, provides an unmistakable cultural signifier of who they are and what they value. Although I didn’t take her class, when I think of that night at the deli, or my days at the dump, I’m sure she was onto something.

Now firmly established in adulthood, I park my trash at the curb and wait for an enormous truck with a mechanized arm to dump it in back to be compacted, trucked to a transfer station, and then shipped to who knows where – leaving me behind to wonder what this says about what I value - and what I’ve thrown away.