Out of Sight: the Semi-Immortality of Household Waste

clockYou probably have one in your bedroom–a simple digital clock with big illuminated numerals you can read across the room. It consists of some simple mechanical and electrical components, and a box of molded plastic. Big deal.

Ours is an over-achiever. It gains a minute every couple of months and is now 14 minutes fast. But in the wee hours, and especially if I need to be up by an exact time, I need to compute 14 minutes less than the clock shows. Or is it 14 minutes more, I wonder, as I rub my eyes and pull the pillow over my head.

So we’ve decided to retire the thing because it also refuses to change its mind. You can’t set time or alarm. So I ordered a replacement this morning, pretty much the same kind of simple clock, for $10–undoubtedly assembled of plastic and small inner bits by a gaunt teenager breathing bad factory air some place in China.

Without giving it another thought, we’ll toss the old one in the kitchen trash can in two business days, bound for the green boxes up at Haven’s Mall–where smart shoppers are always on the lookout for perfectly useful debris that others generously leave outside the boxes. This at least postpones opening the lid on somebody’s dumpster-house.

And then where does our old clock go? I had one of my waking coffee-dreams this morning as I wondered about this.

The roof of our house was a lid–like a giant mouth. Into one of these household repositories went everything we had thrown away since we were married in 1970: all the old tires from all the cars we’ve driven; the old cars we’ve driven that had the wheels driven off ‘em; all the old appliances we’ve bought–in avocado green, sierra gold, and rusted white; all the jeans and sneakers and computers and televisions and shiny new doodads that became neglected and outdated and mindlessly-tossed doodahs.

The first dumpster-house filled to the very brim not long after we were married. We started over a few years later with a new empty dumpster house. And again and again, we have filled them. Our little over-achieving bedroom clock is only the last thing to toss into the current container. Out of sight, out of mind–the story of STUFF.

But I stood back in shock at the dozen house-sized containers it has taken to hold our junk–not to mention our garbage, which at least gives a bunch of soil microbes a nice meal to bring organic mulch back some day in forest or meadow. The other stuff will just take up space underground, somewhere, somehow.

How do we bury (or incinerate or shoot into space) a dozen houses-full of stuff for every one of us who creates a constant stream of STUFF destined very quickly for their dumpster-house du jour?

This is the kind of brain worm you wish you’d never let slip in between sips of coffee, and yet the consequences of our affluenza and the long-term costs of what we buy and use up and degrade and toss away today had best become an active, conscious, intentional and planned-for part of the lives of our children.

Maybe they’ll be less prone to buy and toss, and decide to just use the thirty-year-old bedside light and their twenty year old wrist watch at 2:00 am to know the time. Or is it 2:14?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Or…you could just let it rest and show whatever time it wants to and use the alarm on your cell phone when you need to be awake at a certain time.