Confronting a Community’s Worth of Trash

It’s a paradox, but isolated mountain life is making us get uncomfortably close to our new community’s trash supply. Here at Big Laurel, we get it from all angles; the drive along Marrowbone Branch road up to our ridgeline home provides a regional tour of rusted auto bodies and old childrens’ toys strewn along the banks of Marrowbone Creek. Walking with Wendell on the ATV trails around our property reveal hidden dumps in the trees where tossed aside garbage bags have burst their contents, strewing them into the foliage. Worn out tires one day; the next a pile of clothing, earthen stains beginning to take over. Most often it’s beer can remnants from the past weekend’s teenage revelries. 

I initially was going to photograph a different pile of trash, but I stumbled upon this more recent pile on the way there.
I initially was going to photograph a different dumping ground, but I stumbled upon this fresh pile pile on the way there.

The garbage situation at our Knob home is similar. The homestead has seen a plethora of residents in its time, and each inhabitant comes with their own possessions. When they eventually moved on, what wasn’t valuable enough to keep was left behind. Consequently, we have been sorting through the remnants of every previous inhabitant. Weighed down with our own truck load of wedding gifts, we have been overwhelmed with the daunting task of sorting through the clutter and getting rid of everything we deem unnecessary. But our home is just one of many buildings on the property, others are being treated as defacto storage sheds; often stuffed with water-damaged junk. We’ve spent weeks going through these buildings and trying our best to methodically sort through it all. But sorting it is the easy part. What’s difficult is knowing what to do with it. Much of the clutter is truly worthless and we can toss it into our garbage bags with only a twinge of guilt. Then it can be stored in our woodshed or to the side of the house until we can take it to the coal company’s community dumpster a half hour down the road. I can only imagine that our neighbors do the same, at least those that don’t burn everything or chuck their trash into the creek. 

The coal road dumpster
The coal road dumpster

Getting our goods anywhere but a landfill is the trickiest part. Though we sort out all our recyclables, we haven’t found anywhere within an hour of us that will take them. One ambitious weekend we cleaned and sorted two hundred pounds of scrap metal, filled the back of the nuns truck with it, and drove three hours round trip to get it recycled. For all that trouble we made $6. More often we simply send every departing guest with a goodie bag of our recyclables for them to dispose of in their own cities.

Facing a multi-year collection of trash can be staggering. We’ve found unopened packages of tools that have rusted in their plastic pouches. Piles of cheap gardening supplies with cracks or sun damage that renders it all completely useless. Cables running through my garden soil to connect into our home for a now extinct model of TV. One entire shed was full of recyclable plastic containers from the summer camps. And Big Laurel is a place where people live simply and a lot more minimally than the rest of America. 

One of many loads of trash we have pulled from the property

No, Big Laurel doesn’t have a trash problem. I’ll bet it creates less waste than most organizations its size. What it has is a trash removal problem. And living up here is making me think a lot more critically about the way the rest of America deals with trash. When someone else collects your garbage regularly from a tidy outdoor bin, you begin to forget just how much it all adds up.

Ian and I aren’t any better than the Knob inhabitants before us. We forget our reusable bags just about every shopping trip and consequently could choke a lot of wildlife with all the disposable bags piling up on our pantry counter. Our collection of beer bottles has gotten too heavy for me to lift (don’t judge, we didn’t drink it all ourselves!). And when I see it taking up valuable room in our home, I can begin to understand the appeal of chucking it all into the woods.

A lot of people move back to the land to gain more control over their lives. They want to fully understand their personal ecological impact and minimize it where they can. Seeing how many dumpsters Ian and I have probably filled in the three months we have lived here, I don’t think we are there yet. But I know that we are getting a more accurate view of the impacts of our consuming lifestyle. And seeing clearly is the first step towards making some changes.

A great piece about trash in Honduras was written by my college friend Kate Parsons. I highly recommend checking it out.


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6 thoughts on “Confronting a Community’s Worth of Trash

  1. Also trash collection is about economics…. you have to pay some one or to remove the trash, tires or appliances… so if you burn most of you trash, what to do with the things you are not suppose to burn or cant be burned? Tires are the worst here in 1990 it costs about 5 $ a tire to dispose of them in a landfill or local gas station and you are not suppose to burn them so … they dumped them. Over the last few years the state has made Tire days where the communities all over the state let people in that county bring in their old tires to dispose of for free… has Save West Virginia millions in land and water contamination. Not that it is perfect but over the 20 years that I have lived here I have seen several tire dumps cleaned up and less of them in the woods and water ways.

    1. Oh my goodness the economics of trash disposal could be a whole blog post of it’s own! I’m so glad you have seen that much progress so far. I’ve been toying with the idea of using the tires I find in the woods as a sort of planter for growing potatoes, but I’m a little worried about chemical contamination.

  2. I’m part of a group called the Pacific Northwest Litter Project. We’ve been picking up litter for four years. Over this time we have given more and more attention to picking up cigarette butts, which are the most common form of litter in the world, and is very toxic to the earth and to birds, fish and animals. We send our butts to TerraCycle who recycles them into plastic pallets. I think we’ve sent more than 275,000 of them by now.

    Seattle has been progressive about recycling for a long time. And people are now fined if they put food waste or recyclables into the garbage. It is amazing how little garbage you have if you remove all recyclables and food.

    1. I love hearing about your successes! It’s my hope that someday Appalachia will catch up to the progress happening in the West Coast!

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