Growing up in farm country, I never realized how different my perspective was from most residents of the United States until I went to college. I still remember the first time I had dinner with my new housemates in an old cabin we rented on Lake Samish near Bellingham. After the meal one of the guys volunteered to do the dishes. Ed collected all the plates and then did something truly shocking to me – he scraped all the refuse off the plates and into the kitchen sink.
I thought Ed was crazy. Why would anyone just scrape a bunch of garbage into a sink? Now we’d just have to scoop it all out of there to throw it away. I didn’t understand that Ed grew up in the city, with a garbage disposal, and just assumed the cabin had one too.
Living in the country, we did without many things that city dwellers take for granted. Garbage disposals, for example. When one has a septic tank, one does not have a garbage disposal. Such people learn (sometimes the hard way) that what goes down the drain doesn’t just disappear. Some of it rots, but if it doesn’t rot fast enough then someone has to pump it out of the septic tank.
When I was a kid we also did without some other city necessities. We didn’t have trash pickup, let alone yard waste or recycling pickup. If we bought something in a box, we had to get rid of the box, usually by burning it in a barrel if it was unusable for some other purpose. If something came in plastic, then we had to put up with smelly black smoke when we burned it. Food waste all went on the garden pile – a less fancy version of a compost heap. We learned that junk doesn’t just disappear. It has to go somewhere. That’s why on some farms it was easy to track back their machinery purchases for decades by looking at the row of rusting hulks lined up along the edge of some field.
Growing up in the country, I learned that one of the truths of modern life is a lie. Nothing is “disposable” – in the sense that we can just pitch it away when we are done with it and it will simply disappear. Nothing disappears when we discard it. It has to go somewhere, and then it needs to rot or get burned or get reused or refabricated or it will sit around in a pile for a very long time. Cities hide this inconvenient truth. They have become adept at locating spots for their “piles” a long way away – like Eastern Oregon where Seattle’s trash goes.
How might our consumption habits change if we all understood that “disposable” usually means that someone else has to deal with our trash when we are through with it? In the United States, there is a LOT of room for consumption habits to change. According to Scientific American, in 2012 the average American consumed 35 times more resources and services than the average resident of India, and 53 times more than the average person in China. How much of that consumption was of something supposedly “disposable?”
Society at times even thinks people are disposable. At Seattle First Baptist we do a pretty good job of understanding, like Jesus, that no one is disposable. Every person is a child of God, and loved by God just as much as the rest of us. Can we also learn that consumer goods are not disposable, and can we consume less for our planet’s sake?
Businesses don’t pollute the world for fun. If they pollute the world it is for profit, usually to make stuff that the rest of us will pay for and consume. When we reduce what we consume, we reduce the demand for stuff, and remove the motivation for a business to make ever more stuff.
People are not “disposable,” and neither is anything else.