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Trash, Treasure, or…?

December 11, 2015

What do you think about when you throw something away?  I suppose that depends on the item…a dirty diaper probably can’t get in the trash (and out of the house) fast enough!  A wrapper, an empty food container, anything recyclable – all these things leave our home and we’re done with them!  Hopefully, if you’re able to recycle or compost where you live, you feel like you’re also contributing to a process at least a bit less wasteful.

But, I’m not talking about that…I’m talking about WHAT you’re tossing.  Does it still have value?  To anyone?  Obviously, if you’re tossing it, you’re done with it, but does it have any value at all?  What about to someone who cannot afford anything surplus?

In Alaska, we had what we called the “Borough Mall.”  At most dump sites in town (we lived in a suburb just outside of Fairbanks, right in the middle of the state), there was a covered, paved area for “reusable” items (we took out our own trash, as there was no pick up service).  The “goods” left there ranged from complete junk to really useful things.  Our baby swing, kitchen sink, and even a piece of furniture came from that Borough Mall!  Once I pulled up behind two college girls who obviously had more money than I did, based on their very oversized truck and fashionable clothes from Outside (what Alaskans call the Lower 48).  They were dumping two large bags of clothes…some still had tags on them!  Gap, Banana Republic, all sorts of great stuff – I scored big time!  I really didn’t care why they gave it away because there I was, super stoked about a new wardrobe for free!

Well, here in Congo, we compost anything that can become dirt (paper, produce, etc.).  There is no recycling (there wasn’t in our part of Alaska at that time, either) and trash gets picked up, but I’m not sure where it goes after that.  I also pay per bag…when I buy the empty bags from the garbage guy!

But, before my trash even leaves the kitchen it is inspected.  The guys who do the dishes and clean the floors and cook some pantry items that are huge helps to me, my sanity, and our home staying functional, also take the time to make sure I didn’t throw out something they find useful.

Mostly, I’m glad to know that things aren’t always being uselessly tossed, but sometimes, when I throw something away, it’s for a good reason.  Like food that has gone bad and, at least culturally, is inedible.  I say “culturally” because I realize that, generally speaking, what is edible and what has passed its prime differs in different places.  Some of those cheeses we saw in France were DEFINITELY past their prime in my book, but obviously not to others.

So, before I throw something away, I have to think about several new factors: is it obviously useful?  Glass food jars or plastic containers are definitely useful, but I try to only keep a few at a time.  I don’t throw them away – I set them on top of my washer and leave them for several days (long enough for the guys to all have worked and have the option to take them if they want).  I do this to reassure that I am not wasteful as much to give them the option – I understand the value, even if I don’t want it.

I also look at if it is dangerous (old food) or inappropriate.  I had a pair of underwear that were past THEIR prime, and anything out of fabric is repairable, but I really didn’t want my old underwear anywhere but the trash.  Call me a snob, but I do draw the line somewhere.  But, Amelia’s holey leggings or an overly stained t-shirt?  Have at it!

I also look at what will be seen.  I hate hate HATE being wasteful, but sometimes food goes bad before we eat it, especially if the power’s been out for several long days.  If it’s dangerously bad, I simply time when I throw it away, so at least it’s buried or even wait until the trash is almost full, then tie it up myself.  However, just because I tied it, doesn’t mean it stays that way.

And once it leaves our house, it is once again picked through to determine if anything useful or valuable was left behind.  I know this because I’ve seen it on the side of the road – the bags are dumped in a pile and sorted.

Do I feel pity or disgust?  Honestly, both of those sentiments have crossed my mind on more than one occasion, but then I remember that my cultural bias is why I feel that way.  There is nothing objectively wrong with going through something someone else threw away.  Even if it makes me feel weird sometimes.

So, next time you throw something away, remember that living cross-culturally literally adjusts EVERY aspect of your life, your thinking, and pray for your Congo missionary friends, who spend far too much time thinking about their trash and where it goes after the can and the various tactics to make sure something has the best chance of being thrown away.  If you live somewhere other than the land of curb side trash pick up and sanitation companies, what do you do with your trash?

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