Is garbage really disappearing? You’d think so, from my last two cheerful posts (here and here). But I have a darker view today, because I had to do garbo.

“Garbo” is an inescapable duty for Holden Village volunteers, who must all put in at least one morning processing the previous day’s waste. At 8:15 am, we report to the quaint-sounding Garbo Dock for a couple hours of hard work. First, that morning’s five-person team breaks down and bundles cardboard boxes for recycling, setting aside waxy fruit boxes to send back to the growers. Next, we load the kitchen and dining room compost cans onto the pickup truck. We tuck them next to a dozen or more large plastic bags the Village Garbologist has collected from cans around the village—cans labeled Landfill, Burnable, or Recycling. When the truck is full, we walk to the Garbo Dock and spend 20 to 45 minutes opening and sorting the contents of those bags, one at a time, into the correct container.

We pluck candy wrappers and half-filled yogurt containers out of the recycling, moldy sandwiches from paper bags, toothpaste tubes out of paper towels. We separate plastic by number; glass into green, brown, and clear; stash items to be landfilled into bread flour sacks. All kinds of odd things turn up as we sift: toothbrushes, pennies, batteries, love letters, peach pits, postcards. When everything is in its proper place, we walk up a long hill to the compost pile. Depending on the village census, we dump and chop four to eight 32-gallon cans of compost into little pieces with flat shovels. Each day’s compost is slightly different; on my morning, we chopped coffee grounds and filters, kale stems, orange peels, oatmeal, and tomatoes. When the mixture is fine enough, we add it to one of the nine compost bins, throw in sawdust and already cooked compost, string up the electric bear-and-deer barrier, rinse out the garbage cans, and call it a day at about 10:00 am.

But not before we load the bundled landfill and recycled items into old school buses whose windows have been replaced with metal to keep bears out. Every few months, Mattias the garbologist unloads the buses onto a truck that he drives down the mountain, onto a barge, and, at the other end of the lake, to the Chelan County Waste Transfer Station. There he re-sorts the recycling and tips the landfill materials into a dumpster that goes to the landfill in Kittitas County, where more people and machines handle what Holden Villagers have discarded.

His daily duties have not made Mattias optimistic. He doesn’t think garbage is diminishing or that people are changing their ways.  “Once people throw something out, they don’t think about it anymore,” he says. “I know that 95 percent of this stuff is going to sit around forever. It’s really depressing.”

I was depressed, too.  Four hundred people trying to live lightly in the wilderness still generate A LOT of trash. Sorting it, you confront wastefulness (who threw this away??), laziness (why did this person skip sorting?), a pretty high ick factor, and a stern reality check to fanciful notions about the disappearance of garbage.

Nature, unlike humans, operates a closed system that converts one living being’s waste into another living being’s life source. Not us. We invented “away,” as in “let’s throw this away,” and then set up wonderful systems to take our trash there. A morning committed to garbo reinforces the truth that there is no away. Away is still on our planet (although Mattias has some intriguing ideas about sending trash to space) and in our—or someone else’s—neighborhood.  Throwing away something is a process that involves lots of steps and people, from the stewardesses who pick up your inflight drink to the hotel maids who clean your room and countless janitors and waste haulers who bend, sort, lift, and carry what used to be yours to its resting place in a transfer station or landfill.

Mattias does feel that the hundreds of people who participate in garbo leave with more insight into their role as wastemakers and clients of the mythical “away.” And watching garbage come and go, he  has determined one step he plans to take to create less waste. He is giving up disposable razors—one of the items he sees most frequently—and investing in an old-fashioned razor. The kind you don’t throw away.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity