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In rural northern Wisconsin, if you want to influence public opinion, catch the hunting or fishing reports, or connect with seldom-seen neighbors, plan to spend your Saturday mornings talking trash at the dump.
Only, it’s no longer called a “dump” in local-government-speak. Back in the mid-1990s, new regulations made it increasingly costly for small municipalities to operate landfills. Instead, many rural landfills became “transfer stations.” Your solid waste, and your neighbors’, may now go into bins, containers or trailers that are later hauled away. Often, that trash is transferred to other rural areas that invested in landfill facilities that can comply with the regulations that govern the receiving, processing and long-term monitoring and management of the stuff you throw away.
Not that long ago, anybody with a Back 40 had a place where they dumped stuff without much thought to how it might affect the soil and water a generation or two down the road. We’ve learned a lot since then, and fundamentally changed the way most of us manage our trash.
But we also have more trash to get rid of than our great-grandparents did. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produce about 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day. Only about 1.5 pounds of that is recycled or composted. Think about that the next time you wrestle open a blister-pack of batteries and send the packaging toward a modern midden heap for some future archaeologist to excavate.
Here and now, though, there are plenty of things we can try to make our friends and families more aware of trash and what we do with it in rural America. You might even want to share these thoughts with the cousins who just moved back to the neighborhood after years of urban dwelling, and any kids in the family who still expect someone else to pick up after they’ve gone to bed.
Who? How? When? Some rural residents roll receptacles to the road for pick-up by a garbage truck just like their city cousins (although curbs are few and far between in these parts). But in many areas, if you expect your garbage to be picked up, you’ll have to pay for that service on your own. The rest of us haul our own garbage in our own vehicles to the transfer station. If you can’t go when the transfer station is open, or you can’t get a neighbor to take your trash with hers, it’ll have to wait until next time. Think about that while you’re cleaning fish — before their guts go into the trash. (Helpful hint: Wrap fish guts in newspaper to store in the freezer until just before you leave for the dump.)
Critters. My generation still remembers when the dump was a convenient, reliable source of food for critters and entertainment for tourists. Watching black bears glean leftovers from the landfill was a hallmark of the Up North experience. That’s no longer the case. But the bears might come to you if your trash is the least bit inviting. And they are not neat when they leave a party. Neither are raccoons. Skunks can be even worse. If you don’t enjoy picking up what even a scavenger won’t eat, make sure your trash isn’t inviting. And make garbage containers less convenient for you and for them by rigging lids that take opposing thumbs to remove. Ask your neighbors to show you how they rig theirs, where they store them, and how they manage their garbage. (Helpful hint: Just because the calendar says it’s winter doesn’t mean everyone is hibernating.)
White elephants. It’s not just four-legged scavengers you have to watch out for. Sometimes the two-legged ones treat the transfer station like a huge swap meet. Because in addition to bins for trash and recyclables, there may be containers for large items. Furniture and appliances might be accepted only during “clean up” periods. But you never know when your husband will deliver a leaky aquarium and come home with a 100-foot extension cord that only needs to have the plug ends replaced. (Helpful hint: Do not leave husbands unsupervised near the white elephant bin.)
Reduce, reuse, recycle. While it’s admirable to recycle a white elephant, before you haul it home give a little more thought to the “Reduce” part of the slogan. In common parlances, it generally means you select purchases that have the minimum amount of packaging. In real rural life, it’s like a variation on the concept of, “How many Chevy S-10s does it take for parts to make one truck that runs?” In other words, if your find is liable to sit around taking up space, take a pass. Or wait to see if the item is still there the next time you go to the dump: If it’s already been transferred, it wasn’t meant to be. (Helpful hint: If you see it at a neighbor’s house, stay mum. And be patient. It might show up back at the transfer station in a season or two.)
Consider volume. The “Reduce” part of the slogan applies to regular trash, too, whether you haul it yourself to a transfer station or live in a municipality where trash is picked up at the end of the driveway. No one wants to be the snowplow driver trying not to scatter enormous piles of trash on the first scheduled pick-up day after Christmas. Especially since volume is something you could minimize with just a little effort to break down and bundle things like cardboard boxes. And if you’re hauling your own trash and recyclables, reducing volume makes it easier to get everything to the dump in one load. (Helpful hint: Composting is another easy, effective way to reduce the volume of waste you have to transport. Plus it helps keep gross stuff from leaking in your car.)
It all goes somewhere. Backyard burn barrels have long been used in rural areas to minimize the volume of waste that has to be hauled. Their users may have the best of intentions, but burn barrels present some serious problems. For one thing, household waste tends to burn at relatively low temperatures and with poor combusion, so it releases all kinds of pollutants. When that plastic blister pack from your battery purchase goes into the barrel by accident, the toxins released from the burning plastic are hazardous for healthy lungs and even worse for people with asthma or other respiratory problems, young children, pets and wildlife. Furthermore, backyard burn barrels are a common cause of wildland fires. (Helpful hint: Join your local volunteer fire department. You can do some good for your community by helping them put out all the “little trash fires” that get away.)
Train your family. It’s really not that tough to train your family to sort their trash as if it really matters that you keep plastic out of the burn barrel — or do without burning altogether because you’ve decided as a family it’s not worth the cost. You can also decide, as a family, that it does matter how much you release into the waste stream and that you can reduce the volume without much effort. Say, for example, you’re hosting a big family reunion, where it makes sense to use paper plates and plastic cups. If you put out big trash bags, you’ll have a big volume of trash. So instead, put out dishpans where people stack their disposables before they get bagged. That will greatly reduce the volume. Better yet, keep extra flatware, utensils and dishes to share among extended family or friends when a large group will gather. That eliminates both the expense of buying disposables and a huge volume of waste. (Helpful hint: Make washing up a fun part of your tradition. Those in the know are quick to volunteer when they know there’s a dance party in store, or that you’ll be dishing about the old days. You can’t make memories like that with a bunch of paper plates.)
The Golden Rule of garbage. With garbage, as with most things, do unto others as you would have others do unto you. For example, if you’re a visitor or non-resident homeowner and can’t get your trash to a transfer station when it’s open, don’t leave it at a rural park or business. If you produced it, you can haul it back to the city with you and put it on the curb there. By no means should you ever leave it where it can attract critters, rodents, or the ire of neighbors. And speaking of neighbors, it’s considered neighborly where I live to offer to take the trash from a party. “I’ve got the truck and I’m going to the dump tomorrow, can I take those bags for your?” That’s a better hostess gift than any bottle of wine.
Finally, here’s one last helpful hint that probably no one ever told you: Don’t park at a rural gas station and fill up the garbage bins by the pump with trash from distant fast food joints. Now that you know someone will have to haul that garbage away or pay a service to do so, you can see: That’s just trashy.
Donna Kallner lives in part of rural northern Wisconsin where a Saturday morning outing to the transfer station qualifies as a date.