One man's quest for the truth about trash

Shortly after Christmas, I read a news story about a Berkley man who decided to save a year's worth of his trash, simply to see how much trash one person generates. I mumbled something about another loose screw from Berkley, and began to turn the page.

Certainly, I thought, that data exists somewhere, and can be ascertained more quickly and sanitarily than this. But his quote gave me pause. He said, "When we throw something away, what does 'away' mean? There's no such thing as 'away.' "

Of course I knew that "away" meant neither the kitchen can nor my curbside wheeled cart, but beyond that, how much did I know about where our trash goes? We have a smaller sized trash cart, and that, I thought, was a sufficient yardstick with which to measure of our trash-citizenry. Any hubris to which I'd felt entitled came to an abrupt end less than 24 hours later.

We were cleaning up after the Christmas pandemonium. My wife and kids were working on the exodus of gifts from the living room, while I stacked up boxes, packaging and wrapping paper. Holding a chin-high stack, I clumsily opened the front door, only to be met by the UPS driver holding a large box for us — full of belated gifts from family across the country. That is exactly when the absurdity of that scene played out like an out-of-body experience. There I stood, with my armload of waste, only to be greeted by a man delivering to me what was essentially more (albeit "unprocessed") waste. Literally, garbage in, garbage out.

I decided then, that instead of filling my cart and leaving it curbside this week, I'd venture to the transfer station to see firsthand what happens to our trash. I loaded up my truck and began my quest.

Once I arrived, the scale of the operation overwhelmed me. Nine hours a day, seven days a week, trash comes in. Legions of massive trucks moving in symphony grumbled busily about. For those of us dumping our own trash, a blue line on the road guided us through this intricate operation. I joined the procession of small (and not-so-small) trucks in front of and behind me, like ants finding a picnic. The line terminated, of all places, at an espresso stand.

Here, while awaiting my trash to be assessed for dumpworthiness, it was confusing that I should be able to enjoy a latte. Was this to distract me from any introspection on what I was witnessing, or simply a shrewd business move? Approaching the stand, I was greeted by a friendly woman with a tape measure. Incoming trash is billed by cubic yards. She looked in the bed of my truck, printed a bar-coded ticket for me, and told me to proceed, following the blue line.

Arriving at what was essentially a large garage, a machine accepted my ticket and displayed my designated bay number. After backing in to bay 12, I simply threw my two bags onto the concrete floor behind me. On either side of me were more than a dozen other folks doing the same thing — just throwing their trash off the backs of their trucks. They threw old carpeting, empty boxes, full boxes, furniture, scraps of metal and plastic, packaging material, toys, clothes and more. Shortly thereafter a large bulldozer passed by and swept the concrete clean. Out of sight, out of mind. The alacrity with which the trash was removed was less to assuage any guilt that I was feeling, and more to keep the bustling business moving.

I later learned that the trash is taken to a local landfill and dumped in massive piles there. While there are developments under way to convert waste into energy, it's stunning to realize how much we all consume and thus generate as trash.

According to, there is a 70:1 ratio of factory trash to that of their consumers. Could it be that my two bags of trash translate into 140 bags of industrial trash because of what I chose to buy?

Maybe we'd all be better off to simply buy less stuff, and by default, generate less trash. When did we succumb to the marketers' mantra that more stuff means a happier you? How's that working out (is Christmas a time of family, friends, and happiness, or shopping, stress, and unhappiness)?

How about a life of "More Fun, Less Stuff"? That's the motto of the Center for a New American Dream ( Sounds good to me.

Cliff Beneventi lives in Jacksonville.

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