Signs of the Kingdom: A Day at the Dump
By Louis Lotz
I went to the dump the other day. They call it the County Landfill, but don't let them kid you. It's the dump.
Visiting the dump always gets me thinking. You look at all this trash, acres of garbage, a three-story mountain of washing machines, dryers, and stoves (“white goods,” they’re called in dumpspeak), and you can’t help but think: Where did all this stuff come from? Who made it? Who bought it?
We throw away a lot of stuff in this country. Americans generate about 1,500 pounds of trash per person per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The statistics get mind-numbing after a while, but try to wrap your head around some numbers. Americans throw away roughly 200 million tons of trash every year, including 2 billion shaving razors, 18 billion diapers, 9 million tons of glass, 83,500 square miles of plastic wrap, and 40 percent of all our food. We discard 44 million newspapers every day, 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, and enough aluminum every three months to rebuild the entire commercial airline fleet. We are the per-capita garbage champs of planet Earth. If “The earth is the Lord’s...,” we owe the Almighty an apology for trashing the place.
I used to think that the dump was like a big compost pile, where garbage decomposed and became useable soil. Not true. Most garbage gets mummified. Decomposition takes place, but the process is agonizingly slow. Once buried, most trash just lies there, embalmed. And some stuff—glass and plastic—never decomposes. Garbage doesn’t break down, it adds up.
And then there’s packaging. Why does a toothpaste tube have to come in a cardboard box? Why can’t you just buy the tube? Why does a one-ounce product need three ounces of plastic shrink-wrap? Ink cartridges for my printer come in a cardboard box. Inside the box is a Styrofoam wedge, presumably to keep the cartridge from bouncing around, and a sheet of paper telling me how to install the cartridge; the cartridge itself is wrapped in plastic. Cardboard, Styrofoam, paper, plastic—packaging accounts for almost a third of all trash.
Easing America’s garbage glut will require more dumps and cleaner incineration plants. And that’s the easy part. More difficult will be embracing the three R’s: Reduce, Recycle, Reuse. Our convenience-oriented, “easy disposal” attitude has to change. One of my grandmother’s favorite sayings was, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” You’re thinking: Why should I do without? See, I told you it was hard.
Look around you, my friend. Everything you see, everything you own, all your possessions, all your treasures, someday it’s all going to the dump. Clothing, books, souvenirs from trips overseas, gifts from friends and family, furniture, this magazine—sooner or later it will all get thrown away. How hard we labor for that which will perish. “Man heaps up,” said the psalmist, “and knows not who will gather.”
I’m not asking anyone to take a vow of poverty. What’s needed is an ethic of parsimony, by which I mean using all you need, but forsaking the collection of what you do not need. Stuff doesn’t make you any happier. You can’t take it with you. It doesn’t provide any real security. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” said Jesus. You have a lot of stuff, but what you value most, I’ll wager, is family, friends, health, relationships. You never find those at the dump.
Louis Lotz is pastor leader of Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.