It’s not every day I get a chance to attend a world premiere, so when my neighbor Joe sent me the invitation, I promptly accepted. Never mind that it wasn’t exactly Hollywood. A student documentary about our town’s recycling center, affectionately known as “the dump,” complete with pre-screening hors d’oeuvres in the company of friends and neighbors was reason enough to break out the black tie and tails or a least put a fresh shine on my old wing-tips. Of course, since the subject matter was the dump, none of that is necessary. I went on a lark and returned a wiser and happier man. You just never know where or when you are likely to be ambushed by insight.
Leading the ambush that night was Wellesley College filmmaker, DawnMarie Barnett, who turned her camera during the past year to the day-to-day operations of the dump. Her interviews with administrators, employees and citizens who use the facility tell a story that captures a broader range of human experience than I would have thought possible. From the geo-political to the intensely personal, it all comes together at the dump. To understand how this works, we have to start with the facts. Three thousand vehicles visit the Recycling Center every Saturday and 10,000 make the trip each week.
The cumulative effect of recycling generates over $800,000 per year for the town’s general fund but that savings is only a small part of the larger benefit. The Center earns most of its money from the sale of processed trash for re-use. Discarded newspapers, for example, are compacted into huge bales, trucked to New Jersey, and exported to Indonesia where they are used to make newsprint. The town sells newspaper for $97.00 per ton and, with citizens providing the product free of charge, gross earnings are diminished only by relatively modest operating costs.
The key to the Center’s success is the willingness of citizens to do their part in the recycling effort. There are few situations in life where small changes in the way we go about our daily routines can have such profound and far-reaching effects on a global scale. This subject was featured in a recent Boston Globe article by columnist James Carroll who credited the recycling movement with giving ordinary citizens a way to contribute to the critical project of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases to prevent global warming.
Action for global political and economic change takes on a distinctly social dimension as neighbors meet at the wide variety of recycling stations that define the landscape of this part of town. Separate bins for each of the many categories of almost every substance known to civilization stretch along a paved loop through spots for re-usable material, take-and-leave items, books, grass, leaves, brush and plain old garbage. Friends who haven’t seen each other in years exchange quick hellos and arrange to catch up later while their car engines run in preparation for a speedy exchange of parking spaces with the next refuse laden vehicle.
For a more leisurely experience, you can browse the expansive book section where volumes on every subject in many languages are protected from the elements by an awning and metal doors that are shut when the Center is closed. Here, a friend can tell you about selling his house as you admire the beautifully illustrated map of central Europe that he just found in an old encyclopedia.
For the psychologist, the global and social dimensions of life always converge on the individual, making each of us who we are and defining the arena where we play out our lives. Here too the dump shines, especially in the take-and-leave area. Everybody has a dump story and I am sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience that night remembering mine as I watched and listened to my neighbor Joe telling his in the film. A psychologist in much demand as a speaker and consultant, Joe is often on the go and, one day, he found himself in need of an overnight bag. Because he did not have time to go shopping, he stopped at the Recycling Center and found exactly what he needed for his trip to New York. If this were not Jungian synchronicity enough, the luggage tag showed that New York was the home of the original owner. As he states in the film, Joe sees the take-and-leave area as a metaphor for life, illustrating how, by giving and receiving, we enrich the lives of others even as they enrich ours.
A dump story like Joe’s makes you wonder if we really ever own anything at all or if we just use the goods of the earth for awhile and pass them on to someone else. Keep digging, for that’s what psychologists do, and you can muse about other ways that our lives connect with those of people we will never meet. A family in Indonesia reads a Sunday newspaper made from another one thrown away by a family in New England. Two strangers travel the eastern seaboard of America at different times using the same piece of luggage. John Donne wrote long ago, “No man is an island.” If you ever find yourself starting to forget that profound but simple truth, just spend some time at the town dump.
Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.