Garbage Day

In the city of Cambridge garbage day is on Friday. On this day large plastic containers line the streets; the plain grey one and the blue one – distinguished by its familiar triangle and bold white letters that say Recycling“. Sidewalks crowded with these bins, make a normally “walkable” town uncomfortable and difficult.

Depending on the time of year the items thrown into the garbage, destined to fill landfills forever, can make your eyes pop.

A gentleman who is a refugee, recently resettled to the United States, commented to me that he was amazed at garbage day.“Garbage day” he said “is the hardest day for me” He went on to speak of plastic containers and couches, bookshelves and desks all on the street to be picked up by enormous trucks that would crush them into small pieces and then pack those pieces into other refuse previously picked up – the real garbage.

The man was from Somalia. Since the early nineties Somalia has seen an increase in poverty, a decrease in availability of health care resources, conflict within and chaos in the government – in short, overall instability. And it doesn’t seem to be getting better or easier. The shock of going from poverty to plenty hits him the hardest on garbage day.

He’s right – it’s a huge shock to look at what we throw out. I know people who have furnished their entire house through “shopping” on garbage day. We have several pieces of furniture that are from someone’s garbage, retooled to look beautiful in our living and other rooms.

We’re told that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, but it seems that there is a glaring lack of understanding of what is and what isn’t garbage. Chairs, tables, couches – garbage or just discards? Are they instantly recyclable, needing only a fresh coat of paint or stain, a lace cloth and flowers, or a couch cover? In other words – is it really garbage? Or can we rethink this garbage thing? Rethink it in terms of those with plenty being aware of those without plenty.

International students are always in need of furniture and other items. Often here for only a short time, they live simply and sparsely. Refugees and new immigrants often have the need for furniture, dishes, and containers – things that people may have grown tired of and so discarded on garbage day unaware of the need around the corner. Our neighbors may be in need of something that we are throwing out and if we knew them we could meet the need.

The words of this refugee from Somalia  have stayed with me. I am looking at my “garbage” with a more critical eye, ultimately wanting garbage day to be about real garbage. And along with that being more aware of the needs of people around me so that my discards can potentially become their treasure.

Blogger’s Note: Last week after writing my guest post at Tamara Out Loud, I received a comment from a reader in South Africa. She found my blog during the 4am feeding of her baby. As I read it I was amazed at the grace of connection. It turned out we knew each other – both having worked at the state, her in the refugee health program, and me in women’s health. I didn’t know that we shared the same faith – turns out we do and I can’t stop thinking about this.  I followed her over to her blog and am amazed and challenged by what I see on a commitment to simple living. I bring this up during this post because Jo blogs at The Concrete Gardener and she began her blog  for these reasons:

  • Enjoy what we have.
  • Not take more than we need.
  • Use what we have really well.

I urge you to take a look at her blog and get a glimpse of her commitment to the three things listed above.

16 thoughts on “Garbage Day

  1. Here is Australia (and they do it in NZ as well) there is a bi-annual Council Clean Up Day where people put on the street things that are not ‘regular household rubbish’ – tvs, couches, bikes etc… and people go around with pick up trucks trawling the streets for bargain finds. The girls and I go around having a nose around our neighbourhood. My cousin (from South Africa) found their trampoline on someone’s council clean up pile! I love the Garage Sale Day that we took part in this year… the organization that started it promotes reducing landfill as well as getting involved in the community!

    I guess what you could do is collect all your serviceable things that you would normally throw out but could actually be used by someone else and have a Free Garage Sale. No money needed, put out the word and people come along and take whatever they would like. A great way to get to know a community!


  2. I’m preparing to teach a class on Simplicity at our church. I’ve loved thinking about these things….I’m addicted to stuff. We live pretty simply at surface level…but there is part of me that is tethered to my possessions. I’m praying for a holy purge of heart to be able to tackle this. I need to loose weight….and by that I mean the weight of stuff that presses me under and strangles and weighs me down….and then I need to learn to not accumulate…. it’s a spiritual issue: garbage day.


  3. We are a pretty wasteful country, really. We give away a lot of clothing and household items every year. Don’t know how we accumulate it so fast, but we never throw things in the trash that can be recycled or reused.


    1. It hits me more after I’ve been away and it really hit me when we moved to the US from Cairo! And I am as guilty as the next person. That’s why the Concrete Gardener was so good to find. Good to hear from you MJ!


  4. I can’t help but think of friends of ours who adopted a little guy recently and he was in complete shock at the plethora of choices at the grocery store for just cereals alone. Seeing furniture and other necessaries out by the side of the road like so much trash must be jarring at the very least! Oh, that we would have eyes to see the value of an object more clearly in this culture…


    1. Oh Missindeedy! Have you read my post Paralysis in the Cereal Aisle?! What happened to the little guy is my story as well! Thank you so much for reading and the words “that we would have eyes to see the value of an object more clearly….” beautiful.


  5. Not much time – we are busily packing our too much stuff – still too much even after sending bags and boxes to Salvation Army and Good Will. But I need to say how frustrated we have been with trying to give away perfectly good furniture that we will no longer have space for. We just couldn’t find people who would take it. Then I got an email from Cru workers at UMass saying, “We’ll come Thurs. afternoon and take everything you don’t want.” They have interns, and will find homes for our things. Such a gift to us. But oh, I do want to live more simply!


    1. That is so great that Cru is taking stuff. One day in Arizona while driving an Indian grad student home, Cliff found out that they had not a bed or chair in the house. From there he organized our small group to gather furniture and we were able to furnish a couple of students homes. It was great on every end.


  6. this post brings back a recent visual memory I will never forget. It was garbage day here in Madison, and as I was heading to work I saw a woman rolling her garbage container down to the street for pick up while another person was rolling their wheeled container full of all their belongings along the sidewalk, probably heading to a nice bench along the lake. The containers were in equal size and appeared to have about the same amount of things in them. One week’s worth of trash equaling all of one person’s belongings. They intersected at the sidewalk where one of them needed to yield to the other. I cried.
    Thanks for posting! and thanks for sharing The Concrete Gardener. Yea for simple living. Each time I read an article like yours I am encouraged to go even more simpler.


    1. Hi, Stacey. I love this comment, and such sights make me cry, too. I cried many times in Pakistan over the poverty and suffering that I was so helpless to do anything about. I cried just before knee surgery at Bay State Medical Center when I was in the waiting area outside the OR. I was lying there looking around, sedated but conscious and I thought “Just this waiting area would hold the whole of Shikarpur Christian hospital!” We have so much, and so much of the world has so little.


      1. I get that from you mom! I’ll be in the middle of Disney world and start thinking about poverty!! Sometimes I just have to turn my mind off and say “I’m not God, and right now I’ve been given something to rejoice about. It doesn’t mean I’m callous” But even with saying that it can be a struggle.


    2. Stacy – this was so moving – I can just picture it and I too would have cried. It belongs in the blog post so I’m glad you shared on the comments for others to see. I was really encouraged and challenged by the Concrete Gardener as well and you would love Jo. She is absolutely lovely and has that lilting South African accent!


    1. Loved those treasures. Remember how they came in from working on them and we didn’t have a clue what they were doing? I think at one point we were pretty scared.


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