This morning, I got to listen to NPR on the drive to school after enduring last week’s National Week of Begging on my local NPR affiliate. At the bottom of the hour, Morning Edition reported on a clever solution to the burgeoning waste disposal problem in China. It seems that people living near a huge, new landfill have been complaining about the smell. The authorities, never inclined to avoid their mandate to serve the greater good, have responded by sending trucks in to spray massive amounts of air freshener. Think of it as Fabreeze by the tanker truck.
The story got me thinking about the problem of trash. When I loaned my truck to a guy recently, he brought it back in timely fashion but with various bits of trash here and there. Done with that Extra Value Meal? Throw the wrappers in the back seat. Finished with that soda? It’ll fit nicely in the passenger-side floor. Emptied that jug of oil? Just toss it into the truck bed, which should easily hold a cubic yard of trash.
How easily do we throw things away in our society? Smokers, I’ve noticed, seem to believe that their cigarette butts will magically disappear if they simply fling them onto the ground or out the window as they drive. Beer drinkers in my area seem to think that the edge of a country road is a great repository for their cans, bottles, and cases. But am I really any better? I toss things into the trash, take it out to the end of Jim’s driveway on Wednesday night, and by 7am on Thursday morning, all of that stuff has magically gone away.
I have to wonder if life wouldn’t be better if throwing things out didn’t require a bit more effort. We eliminate the packaging that allows materials to travel intact from China to the U.S. with scarcely a thought. When we buy a new car, the old one just goes away. Expensive and extensive plumbing operations cart our elimination away from us and “treat” it. Some in our society treat a marriage or a child with just about the same level of attention.
What choices might we make differently if throwing things away were more difficult? Would I drive the same car? Would I buy the same products? I ask this not as some hypothetical, navel-gazing exercise but because throwing things away is not a real concept. When I throw things away, I am not making them cease to exist. I’m simply putting distance between them and me. When I throw things away, I tend to throw them toward somebody else. Don’t assume, then, that I intend to stockpile bread wrappers or refuse to flush the toilet, but I would like to consider the effects that I’m forcing on somebody else when I discard anything. Until we start launching our rubbish into the enormity of space, we’ll be throwing things away in a way that affects others, either today or tomorrow. Maybe all that “do unto others” stuff ought to come to our minds more readily.