Altering the public discussion around the White Street landfill

by Eric Ginsburg

The recycling tends to pile up in my apartment. My roommate and I toss empty soda cans, spam mail and old newspapers into a cardboard box by the refrigerator that serves as our recycling bin. Every Monday night — if we remember — we drag the cantankerous trash and recycling bins to the curb. After that, I usually don’t think about it again.

Most people don’t really think about where their waste goes, either. And that’s a problem.

For years, the city of Greensboro has gone back and forth about what to do with our trash. The debate pivots on whether or not to open the White Street landfill to solid household waste. In many ways, this misses the heart of the issue.

Most of us produce trash that we expect someone else to deal with. Once we pull our bins to the curb, we feel like our only other responsibilities should be bringing them back the next day and paying our taxes to help cover collection costs. We want someone else to pick it up, someone else to welcome it into their backyard, and someone else to live with the potential negative health effects.

In addition to interning with YES! Weekly, I am also a news intern with North Carolina Public Radio in Durham. There, I was recently asked to do a story on the White Street landfill. Afterward I mentioned it to a friend over lunch, and she suggested our local debate was too narrow.

She pointed out that part of what needs to change is our attitude about trash. Sure, it’s unfair to expect certain communities to absorb all of the waste and pollution into their neighborhoods. But maybe more importantly, we should be having an entirely different conversation about waste management overall.

In San Francisco, she told me, people can be fined for throwing out recyclable material, and residents are required to compost. There are other examples of cities forcing residents to cut back on their waste both in the United States and internationally. Couldn’t we learn from them?

It’s not such a revolutionary idea. It costs so much to ship our undesirables to another county partly because there is so much of it. There are numerous ways to cut back on household trash creation, which would inevitably save the city a significant amount of money.

This is not a Catch-22 situation in which we either continue breaking the bank while essential programs are slashed or continue a pattern of environmental racism where we force one segment of the population to deal with our garbage even when they’ve been promised that era was over.

I walk by my makeshift recycling bin and peer into my trashcan. Even without rifling through it I can see plenty of things that could easily be eliminated from my consumption patterns: unnecessary packaging, Styrofoam to-go boxes and bags that could’ve been reused.

Yes, businesses play a significant role in the creation of these unwanted byproducts, but we could all probably do better. Shifting the conversation to our responsibility for the mess we all create would be more just and make more sense than our current discourse.