What if you had to KEEP all of your trash?

Shel Silverstein – 1969

Luckily people do not generally have the waste building up in their homes that Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout allowed. Although, wow those parents must have been determined to not give in when she did not take the garbage out!

But, what if?

What if we didn’t even have the option to put our garbage out every week?

If you take the somewhat silly, hypothetical situation that Shel Silverstein created and ask the serious question, there are plenty of ways to deal with all the garbage that piles up in her home and eventually across the country. It’s called composting, plus reducing, reusing, recycling.

Landfillphoto credit: D’Arcy Norman

In the past 30 years, the amount of municipal solid waste has grown by 60% – surpassing 254 million tons per year, according to the EPA. Americans produce about 243 million tons of waste, or about 4.3 pounds of waste per person every single day.

That is ridiculous.

Those numbers make Wall-E look not so unbelievable as a potential future. I only hope that this generation coming of age and the one after that really are learning from the mistakes of the past. I wrote a high school essay that I remember to this day that all kids have to make their own mistakes. They can’t take their parent’s word for it.

I still believe that.

I also believe that there is hope. I believe there is ingenuity. I believe there is passion. That is what will get our children through, healthy and happy. The planet will remain, whether we continue to destroy our health is another thing.

So, the garbage. What do you throw away that could be reused, recycled, or composted?

We recently started composting everything we possibly could (mostly kitchen scraps, newspaper, and yard waste) and reduced our weekly amount that goes in the garbage bin immensely. It is truly amazing. Plus once it does its magic we will have the most inexpensive, nutrient rich mulch and soil amendments for our garden! If Sarah Stout had composted, nearly all her garbage would be nonexistent.

But there is plenty of other garbage Shel Silverstein could have used in his entertaining poem. Perhaps it wouldn’t have rhymed quite so well with that lovely cadence, but the garbage is real all the same.

In our home, we have also begun recycling everything possible, which includes what can be recycled curbside and what needs to be taken to a more specialized recycling center. It does take a little more work, but if I had to either hold onto to it or transport it a few miles so it can go to a better use, then it wouldn’t be sitting in my house in this hypothetical situation or a landfill in the real world. If I plan my trips wisely, then I feel terrific about this little contribution.

Reducing can take on so many forms. I believe it starts with reusable products: cloth diapers, cloth napkins, stainless steel water bottles, and lunch items. It continues when you realize that it is worth it to spend a little more on quality items that are meant to last a lifetime or more. It ends when you realize that you have more stuff than you could ever possibly use and the solution is to stop bringing new stuff into your home.

Even though the question was “what if?” I want to know what you can do now. That garbage you put out every week doesn’t disappear magically. We already have states that feel the need to ship their garbage across a vast ocean because they are running out of room. It isn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last. As people demand more and save less, what will that mean for the rest of us?

I have said it before and I will say it again: baby steps are the key to a long-term solution. What is one step you can take now to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfills?


What if you had to KEEP all of your trash? — 27 Comments

  1. Brenna, how did you know I was such a huge Shel Silverstein fan? His poems are always creeping around my subconscious! As soon as I read Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, I continued, “Would NOT Take The Garbage Out!! Perfect, Brenna!! How did I forget this?!” So appropriate and such a wonderful presentation of the poem!

    Beyond that, I think I am going to take your catch phrase and frame it here in my office:
    “baby steps are the key to a long-term solution,” by Brenna
    I love it! It is so true, and so succinct. SO many of our environmental problems (or any life problems, for that matter) seem gargantuan upon first glance – they feel insurmountable, but they can ALL be broken down into baby steps! Once we’ve started taking just a couple of baby steps, then we are on the path toward our solution!


    Thank you so much for adding your voice to this What if discussion!

    • As soon as I read your prompt, that poem was all I could think about. I had the cassette recording when I was little and could hear Shel Silverstein’s voice in my head as I wrote. :)

      I would love to have more people embrace the idea that baby steps are the way to real change.

  2. Wonderful post; this is something I’m passionate about. I DID keep all my trash for a year and it was great – a real education an learning experience for us all. It showed me what I could do by adding together lots of baby steps to create real difference. It also showed me what power I hold by voting with my money!
    Thanks for raising awareness of this important issue. I always say – “when you throw something away; there is no such place as away”…. that keeps me on track when I’d rather throw something in the trash because I envisage a landfill site, incinerator, ship to China or bottom of the ocean and ask myself then how much I would rather wash out the can and recycle it compared to toss it.

  3. I used to live in an area of PA where garbage was shipped in from other states, and that really gave me a sense of the enormity of trash! It’s a disconcerting image, imagining all the garbage still in landfills from when I was a baby and onward.

  4. Our city requires recycling and compost to be collected separately; that sure makes things easier! But we also do things like buying in bulk using our own containers, rather than buying individually packaged things. We don’t put out much trash, but I’d like it to be even less.

  5. This is fantastic (and I love that poem). I try to use reusable items as much as possible (cloth diapers, water bottles, cloth bags), too. In addition, I try to buy things used as much as I can. If I need something for my boys, I check at our local consignment store first. Pretty much all of their clothes are from there, as well as most toys, because we all knows kids outgrow stuff so quickly that it still has plenty of life left. This way, I’m trying to cut down on other people’s garbage, too! : )

  6. I adore that poem, by the way! One of his best.

    I lost my mother a couple years ago. Cleaning out her house after it sold changed me forever. I am convinced she did indeed keep all her trash. Empty tissue boxes. Dish towels from my childhood. Everything was there somewhere (nicely kept, but still!). She was the queen of repurposing. Unfortunately, we disposed of 80% of it all. It really affected me and my relationship with “things.”

  7. We’re big Shel Silverstein fans, too. We do a lot of recycling and now the company that picks it up does the sorting for us to make it even easier. So what more could I do. Well I could put a recycling box next to my desk. Currently we have it under another desk in our home office and it means I have to get up and walk over. I don’t always do it (I know, I know) but if I had a box right under my desk, more paper recycling would happen. :-)

  8. It’s so easy to recycle, and I wish my neighbors were “green” with envy at my 1 small bag of trash (for a family of 5) each week, but they’re not! I’m amazed how they can roll out 2 gigantic trash cans twice a week!

    • I forget so many times that other parts of the country aren’t as recycling friendly. We have it pretty good here in the Pacific Northwest. Hopefully, neighbors will start to pay attention and recognize what you are doing so well.

  9. We compost and recycle, I try to buy products with little or no packaging, and I do a lot of thrifting. All the same, I know for sure that if I actually had to live with the waste I produce, I would find ways to reduce it really quickly. I think there’s a certain fiction that we allow ourselves to engage in by throwing things “away”. You may know, intellectually, that there’s no such place as “away”, but until you actually have to look at it and deal with it, it’s really easy to pretend there is.

    • So, so true. I know that I do a lot, but I am sure that if I had to really look at the amount of waste my family produces, I would be taken aback. There is definitely a fiction about throwing things away, just like there often is about paying with a credit card. I think personal responsibility has long been gone from our society as a whole. It’s sad really.

  10. I try to use reusable items as much as possible (cloth diapers, water bottles, cloth bags), too. Thank you so much for adding your voice to this What if discussion!

  11. Most people these days, myself included, just have too many things. I love when people opt for buying/trading/borrowing used products!

  12. So what more could I do. We do a lot of recycling and now the company that picks it up does the sorting for us to make it even easier. And I love when people spread the word about what a great option it is, especially for kids’ stuff.

  13. We’re big Shel Silverstein fans, too. In addition, I try to buy things used as much as I can.