An unusual sight greeted me when I opened the bedroom curtains early one morning this week: a small boy was being pushed down the street, perched Raja-like on top of a monstrous cane lounge – we’re talking at least a two and a half seater, here people – which was, in turn, balanced precariously on a wheelbarrow. Now, we’re a pretty open-minded bunch in our neighbourhood. We don’t usually bat an eyelid at some of the crazier stunts people pull, particularly if they’re done outdoors; in fact, we generally go out of our way to celebrate them. In my pre-breakfast, non-caffeinated state, however, the sheer spectacle of this young child grinning triumphantly atop his ramshackle rickshaw made me look twice.
At first I thought I wasn’t the only one being slowed down by this strange sight, as a cyclist rode up the road far more sedately than is usual for these parts, looking slowly from side to side like a spectator at a tennis match. A super slow-motion tennis match, though. You must remember, I had not yet had that first, sacred, life-restoring cup of tea that morning (I am one of those people who probably needs a mug like this). But after staring blankly out the window a while longer and eventually noticing the piles of rubbish scattered up and down the nature strip, the reason for all the odd behaviour I had witnessed finally dawned on me: it was Council clean up day.
I have, at best, an ambivalent relationship with Council clean up. There is a part of me — the organised, fastidious, list-ticking part of me — that adores Council clean up. Relishes it. Cannot wait to declutter the house and yard of anything broken down, outgrown, or simply incongruous. This part of me actually gets excited when, once every six months or so, the leaflet arrives in the letterbox advising when bulky goods may be left out for collection by the local Council. Or by the wheelbarrow-owning fathers of small boys who spy a decent-sized lounge in a neighbouring street and think, “That’s it! The perfect couch for the back deck/man cave/mother-in-law’s new nursing home…”
And that’s right about the point when the other part of me begins to emerge. The part that worries about where all this stuff is going to be put. The part that threatens to have an anxiety attack when combinations of words like “mindless accumulation” and “conspicuous consumption” and “built-in obsolescence” are mentioned. The part that gets more than a little concerned when even the kids’ eyes begin to glaze over as we drive along, eyeing the endless piles of busted vacuum cleaners, rusty laundry airers, plastic tricycles, high chairs, mattresses, snow skis, lamp shades and broken bookshelves, aiming to spot a prize in the midst of all that trash.
You know it’s true. Council clean up turns us all into Scavengers.
I don’t mean the professional Scavenger types, who creak in from parts unknown driving their cage-backed utes and trucks piled high with scrap metal salvaged from the suburban hordes to be sold off in places equally obscure. No, I’m talking about ordinary folks, supposedly normal people, who suddenly feel compelled to drive slowly down streets they would normally pass through without so much as a sideways glance, trawling for more stuff. I know that I’m guilty of it — especially if The Bloke is at the wheel. I can almost feel his blood pressure rise as I ask him to “just slow down a bit, for a minute,” as we pass a particularly spectacular pile of…whatever it is. I have definitely seen his fingers tighten on the steering wheel at hearing such a request, and I’m pretty sure that one time I even heard him grinding his teeth.
And why not?
Because this is where we come to the core of the problem, the beating heart of my bipolar response to the biannual dumping/scavenging spree. I am grateful that my local Council makes the effort to provide a Resource Recovery Centre (formerly known and used as a tip), and that nearby government buildings such as a recently renovated Community Art Space were transformed using reclaimed materials. I am also thankful, for the sake of my sanity and a (hopefully) cleaner, tidier and safer home, that the same Council provides bulky goods clean ups twice a year, and encourages residents to have garage sales ahead of those collections to reduce waste. I even feel indebted to the Scavengers who pick through whatever we put out on the nature strip, and was more than a little relieved when this time they took away more than half of what we had discarded there.
But my mind truly boggles at the thought of how quickly our remaining pile of stuff, when combined with everyone else’s pile of stuff, adds up. And it really bothers me that everything that is collected goes straight into landfill faster than you can say “Ikea flat-packed furniture”. It’s what makes me teach my kids how to separate rubbish from recycling, and to donate toys to charity every year before their birthdays and Christmas. It’s also part of what gets climate scientists like these, who really know what’s going on, even more worried than I am — and, in my view, justifiably so.
I know I’m far from perfect, that I could do much better in the environmental stakes than I am doing right now.
But I am learning to tame my inner Scavenger.
And I am also becoming increasingly aware that we don’t just have to stop destroying our planet because it’s where we keep all our stuff — it’s because it’s where we all live.