THIS SPRING, MY MOTHER HAD a series of “mini” strokes that narrowed her range of vision and limited her mobility. Although she is in good shape mentally and physically, my siblings and I realized we had to move our mom from her two-story house into an independent living facility.
Her new two-bedroom apartment is very nice, but it can't hold as many things as her house did. As my sister put it, “Mom is a keeper.” Every room in her house was full of stuff. She had five closets of clothes, including the medical receptionist uniforms that she stopped wearing when she retired 20 years ago. Another closet was full of old shoes. She had so much cut glass, we thought she had cornered the world market.
We knew that we had to get rid of a lot of stuff. Some of our choices seemed easy. Old newspapers and magazines could be recycled. I had to go back to the recycling center twice to retrieve magazines that mom insisted she had to have, but I still think I flooded the market for old magazines. Clothes could be given away. Family heirlooms she wasn't keeping could be dispersed among the four siblings and our children. Her furniture was the easiest. What she didn't keep was given to the grandchildren. And of course, some things could be sold.
You're probably wondering, what does all this have to do with solid waste? I realized two things as we were emptying the house. One insight came with her record albums. Sixty years ago, large, 78 rpm vinyl discs had 10 or 15 minutes of music per side. An album had three or four records, each in a paper sleeve. As I filled a box with old 78s, I realized that CDs containing the same amount of music would weigh far less and would take up barely a corner of the box. This is just one example of how industry thrives on source reduction, as manufacturers constantly find ways to use less raw materials in making their products.
The other thought is that most people are naturally acquisitive. We want things, and we want to keep them. I've talked about my experience cleaning out my mom's house with friends. Almost all have said they went through the same thing with their parents — or that they expect to in the future.
My mother is a hoarder, but she's no worse than a lot of other people. Certainly she doesn't come close to the Collyer brothers, a pair of elderly recluses in New York City who didn't throw anything away. Their house was so tightly packed with stuff that the body of one brother was found dead under a pile of newspapers that had collapsed on him. Even today, NYC police refer to refuse-filled houses or apartments as “collyers.”
People, most of us anyway, are lousy at using less stuff. Even as solid waste hierarchies promote source reduction, we go on accumulating. As living standards improve, we want more. The larger the house, the more stuff we can have.
We even call people who voluntarily renounce possessions “saints,” but we rarely follow their example. Maybe we are hard-wired to acquire. Instead of worrying about source reduction, governments should put more stress on recycling and safe disposal, and let industry take care of using less stuff.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]
The columnist is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C.