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Garbage is Good

For more than a year, my telephone voice mail greeting has ended with, "And don't forget, garbage is good." I use those words because I am curious how people will react.

Most of my callers just leave a message, but my favorite response comes from garbage men. They laugh and shout, "Yes! Garbage is great." Some even thank me.

Some people are horrified. They lecture me on the evils of garbage and try to redeem my soul from its fallen state of grace (my previous message ended with, "And don't forget, recycle.")

I understand their response. We usually use the word garbage - and its cousins, trash, waste and refuse - to describe things we don't like or that have little or no value. If my wife wants my reaction to a new dress she is wearing, I won't smile and enthusiastically say, "Honey, you look like trash."

Why do we get so emotional about garbage? Trash is just the effluence of our affluence, the remains of products we buy and use daily. Garbage is just our leftovers. If we aren't embarrassed by our purchases, why should we be ashamed of the remains?

Admittedly, even the garbage industry has been afraid of these words. At one time, everyone clung to the antiseptic phrase "solid waste," and insisted that what we do is solid waste management. Yuck! When you're at home, do you tell your kids to take out the solid waste?

I realize that garbage can be an emotional and political issue. During the debate over the disposal of New York City garbage in Virginia, letter writers in Virginia newspapers claimed that New York's garbage was particularly vile, infected with AIDS and full of syringes and other unmentionables. In reality, the city's garbage probably has more food waste (kitchen sink disposal units were illegal until recently in the Big Apple) and less yard waste (alas a tree, not a forest, grows in Brooklyn) than Virginia's. Otherwise, Yankee trash and southern garbage are identical.

Perhaps trash creates guilt about the wealth we take for granted in America. Our trash reminds us of how much we consume.

Some people have a Victorian prudery about garbage. Trash is dirty and garbage men who handle it must be dirty, too. These people are too snooty to deal with garbage, but they will scream bloody murder if their trash isn't picked up on time.

It's time to declare a cooling off period in the trash wars. Let's be honest about what garbage is and isn't, and let's have pride in what we do. At WasteExpo several years ago, both the chairman of the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA) Board of Trustees and the CEO of what was then known as USA Waste Services spoke proudly of being garbage men.

As I wandered through the aisles of the exhibit floor, haulers told me they were happy to hear the two men speak so passionately about how they made their living.

As someone who once tossed cans, I can relate to the simple words, "I'm proud to be a garbage man."

By itself, trash is neither good nor bad. Managed properly, it will remain harmless. And that should be our goal.