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Why is it so easy to throw things away?

Recycling really doesn't take much effort.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 6, 2009 7:10PM

Recently a tenant moved out of the apartment building I manage. During the final walk-through I saw that she'd left behind a wall-mounted spice rack, a shelf-and-cabinet unit in the bathroom and a wheeled kitchen cart. She told me her fiancé had all the household items they needed. If no one wanted those things, they could just be thrown away.

I love my new kitchen cart. 

It's about 3 feet tall with two stainless steel shelves, four hooks, and a wooden work surface on top. Right now I'm storing a few stealth stock-up items on the shelves, and come December it will be another flat place on which to cool the Christmas cookies that I bake and give as gifts.

This tenant had already thrown out a bunch of stuff, including pillows, a small stereo system, a three-drawer plastic storage unit and a vacuum cleaner. Some of these items quickly disappeared, apparently fished out by Dumpster divers.

This young woman is hardworking, and not from a wealthy background. Why was it so easy for her to get rid of things for which she'd paid good money? And just over a mile away is a charity thrift shop that would gladly have taken those items, so why not donate them, or put them on Freecycle?

Maybe she was too frazzled by major life changes -- new job plus wedding plans -- to deal with items from her previous existence. But certainly our throwaway culture helped her walk away with a clear conscience. "Reduce/reuse/recycle" simply can't compete with the consumerist mantra of "buy/toss/upgrade." 

This habit starts young
The real bonanza for Dumpster divers, I'm told, happens at the end of the school year on college campuses. Many students don't want to drag home TVs, microwave ovens, beanbag chairs and all the other things they just had to have last September. At least some schools are now organizing rummage sales or making sure the items get donated.

One teacher told me he has friends who "shop" a university's Dumpsters each June. I said it surprised me that someone would throw away even a microwave oven. 

"Try a big-screen TV," he said. 

Surely that's an urban legend, I protested.

"I've seen it," he replied.

Part of me is appalled. Part of me wants to prowl the Dumpsters along Greek Row. 

Why is this kind of waste acceptable? If you have enough items -- say, a whole fraternity's worth -- some charities might even send over a truck. At the very least, why not rack up some karma points via Freecycle?

Yes, I know that the last couple of weeks before finals are stressful. I'm there right now myself, particularly as regards my Psych 357 class. But students are clogging the waste stream with all those sleeping bags and bookcases and coffee makers -- and come September, they'll go shopping once more.

Then again, they're simply modeling the values they see all around them. When they get their own apartments, they'll know the drill: buy, toss, upgrade. 

The Dumpster as cornucopia
The kitchen cart isn't the first item I've inherited from tenants. Sometimes it's because I have to do post-move-out cleanings and sometimes it's because other tenants, like this young lady, dump a lot of ballast when they leave.

Among other things, I've obtained a halogen floor lamp, bath towels, candles, picture frames, a reusable shopping bag, cleaning supplies, a wheeled wooden storage cube, books, a Seattle-themed Monopoly game, gourmet vinegar, mugs, canned goods and a decorative bottle of European sea salt.

Some of those items were sold when my daughter rented a table at a community flea market. Some I'm gratefully using: That lamp provides the illumination I need to study, and the extra bath towels help me to go a little longer between laundry days. (Yes, I washed and bleached them before my initial use. With all the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus floating around out there, it doesn't hurt to be cautious.)

The throwaways that really spooked me were one resident's framed family photos. I couldn't bring myself to take them out of the Dumpster; somehow it would feel like kidnapping. But it disturbed me to see images of the tenant and her daughter smiling up at me from the trash.

If people can walk away from memories like those, I guess it's no wonder that they're willing to dump kitchen carts.

Published May 30, 2008

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