When I was a child, every household had in its backyard either a hole dug in the ground or a rusted oil drum with the top knocked off, in which to burn the family’s trash.
If someone’s older sibling got the OK to toss in a lighted match, the neighborhood kids gathered to cheer the wild conflagration as the reconfigured refuse danced into the air.
The grass around the site was always burned away, replaced by a skirt of ashes where any fallen hot curls were excitedly stamped into the ground during the elimination of most everything a household needed to get rid of, which wasn’t that much then, because we didn’t have the obscene volume of packaging that we do today.
The occasional larger item went to the dump in the trunk of your dad’s car, where eventually, a bulldozer would plow it under. That process didn’t have a name yet, since there was a lot of land and not so much “fill.” Nobody fretted about its future.
In the years that followed, though, the land began to complain of a great bellyache, resulting from the incessant dumping to ever-greater capacities; it begged a new awareness. The serious responsibility of waste management has become a major issue of our time.
I glanced around our house, chagrined at the growing number of things we needed to get rid of, items that no longer qualified for stuffing into those big purple bags for curbside pick-up by the city.
I have a knack for making such things invisible, or at least more palatably integrated into the decor of our home. It’s often accomplished by tossing a colorful scarf over them — enter, the jerry-rigging effect.
But as things pile up, literally and figuratively, they do begin to crowd you (or at least, crowd your husband). You can’t just “throw them in the trash” anymore; you must dispose of them responsibly, often involving a process of dragging them outside, one item weekly, each requiring a specific sticker of varying costs.
Some of our biggest offenders were old computers, a couple dating from the late 1990s, each weighing a ton, certainly none compatible with current software. Two were nestled under desks, eliminating all possibility of legroom. There were several broken printers, too.
Things came to a head when I innocently tried to re-heat a mug of tepid coffee in the microwave, and, seconds later, sparks flew like “Star Wars” laser guns, accompanied by frightful popping noises. I pulled the plug from the wall in terror, witnessing the appliance’s last hurrah. I was stunned, and the coffee ruined.
After numerous phone calls to the wrong place, I got lucky with a patient Department of Public Works employee, who explained options, restrictions, and prices of stickers for particular items. When I groaned, she offered, “Or you could just load them all into your car and take them to Hiltz Recycling, yourself!”
I dialed Hiltz, spoke with a patient woman who directed me to the Kondelin Road site, a massive section of the city unfamiliar to me. And to sweeten the deal, I could put it all on a credit card!
My husband and I struggled to load the car, each computer requiring wheelbarrow transport, but never mind — it would all be gone in half an hour. My angst melted away at my destination when a personable young man emptied my car, lifting each computer as if it were quart of milk. He confirmed prices, jotted them on a piece of paper, and trusted me to deliver it to another location.
“What about the microwave?” I asked, noticing it didn’t appear on my bill. Hurling it over a cliff, as into a mass grave of metal and glass, he called over his shoulder, “No charge!”
I thanked him, navigated out of the huge lot to find the office, and paid my due. I truly love it when you think things are going to be complicated, and they are, instead, simple.
Susan S. Emerson is regular Times columnist.