It only takes a walk through my neighborhood on the last day of the month to know that other peoples' relationships with their belongings are very different from my own. This past weekend was, in particular, a big move-out day in my Chicago neighborhood. Sights like the one pictured above seem to be more the exception than the rule: while walking around this weekend, running errands and meeting friends for meals, I saw so many things out for the trash that didn't need to be. Bed frames, tables, chairs, plates, bags, dishes, laundry baskets, shoes. Dumpsters and trash bins overflowing with things that are still useable and in good condition.
While we all have things we want to get rid of when we move, I think this type of throwing useful items away en masse is probably anathema to most of us. Though it takes effort to dispose of things in a more responsible way, I wager we'd all say that it's worth doing so when possible. I've been thinking about what marks the difference between the attitude toward disposing that lets you throw an iron bed frame like the one above in the trash bin and the one that means you'll call a local charity to come pick it up instead. I think for, me, it comes down to this:
Zero waste asks that we make a contract with each of our belongings. By buying you or accepting you, I'm committing to keeping you, using you, repairing you, and disposing of you responsibly.
This is true of purchases large and small. Buy an apple: it's a pledge to eat it and to try to compost the parts you don't. Buy a chair: a promise to use it, to repair it it breaks, and to donate it or give it away when you no longer want it. Buy a sweater: wear it, love it, mend it, donate it or pass it along to a friend. Without this sense that we are responsible for each of our possessions, they can get dumped pell mell into garbage cans, swept off to a landfill, never to be used again.
I believe this to be true. I don't believe it to be easy or necessarily fun. It's easy (logistically, if not on the conscience) to throw something in the trash if you don't want it. It's not easy to lug it to a donation site, to call five phone numbers to find someone who can repair it, or to take time to mend it yourself.
I'm currently in the midst of preparing to move, meaning that stuff and what we do with the stuff we don't want has been on my mind. I do feel responsible for getting everything to the right place for recycling or reuse. This has meant:
-Collecting and mailing old plastic gift cards to a recycling center in another state that will accept them
-Selling clothing online so it gets to someone who really wants it, not dumped on an overburdened secondhand market
-Selling clothing in person at a local resale shop (same reason)
-Taking old art and craft supplies to my local creative reuse center
-Hosting a stuff swap to get good things in the hands of friends
-Dropping by Little Free Libraries to leave unwanted books for someone else to take
-Figuring out where to donate my old laptop for resale and reuse
-Texting specific friends whom I think would use something I'm getting rid of, and setting up a time to meet
-Walking to a local drop-off point for old CDs and electronics, then depositing some of ours
-Collecting items for donations runs to the secondhand store; doing said runs
-Soaking and scouring pots so that they're more likely to get repurchased on the secondhand market
-Removing the bristles from old bamboo toothbrushes languishing under the sink; composting the handles
-Returning a glass growler back to the grocery store, where it's collected for reuse and refill
Clearly: being responsible for your things can be a burden. I feel lucky to have the resources to own the things I have, and for the time to make sure they go to others if I can't use them. I do a lot of making zero waste seem easy on this blog; I believe many parts of it are, but this isn't really one of them. I've held on to many items years after I stopped needing them because I didn't have the time or knowledge to pass them on appropriately.
If we commit to keeping items out of the landfill and in use, if we take this contract with each and every item we own, then logically we can only own so many things. I've talked before about my wary relationship with minimalism, but I think I'm heading more in that direction again. Each item I bring into my house means an investment of time and energy down the road, in a way that it doesn't for many other people who choose not to be responsible stewards (or who have never been taught to think of that as an option). I value my stuff. I value my time and energy more. As someone anticipating several moves in the upcoming years, this is motivation enough.
Thoughts on this? I would love to hear them.
PS. Read more musing like these on the "essays" tag, here.