My town dump has been accused of having one massively putrid aspect to it, and I'm here to at least try to clear the air. National Public Radio recently profiled the "Take It or Leave It" area of the Wellesley Massachusetts recycling center, and while this 2000 square foot spot of asphalt with its supposed riches has been exhaustively covered over the years by the Boston local press, it was clearly news to listeners nationwide who seemed uniformly disgusted with it. I think the portrait of the center was incomplete. No wonder angry listeners focused on trashing the rich instead of praising efforts to recycle.
There is certainly a lot of squirm-inducing dissonance to the place. It's one corner of a state-of-the-art recycling complex, where really rich people drop off their discarded goods, and less rich people or people with lower standards (me, and me) take them for free. Drop-off and pick-up is for Wellesley residents only.
The piece on public radio was fair, but, as expected, it focused on the fancy-schmancy treasures that occasionally get dumped, and made it seem like Escalades were pulling up by the dozen hour after hour with butlers dumping high-end, barely-used items. They mentioned Weber grills, jade statues, Wedgewood saucers, Waterford crystal. It was described by the reporter as a "garage sale gone Gucci".
Now, a reality check. Here was the first angry listener.
"I kept waiting for a dumpster-diver to say they were donating their great finds to charity. Alas, no such social consciousness was exhibited by any of the well-to-do interviewees."
First, let's knock down the myth of the "great finds". I am a natural-born thrifter, and I'm there three times a week with my son. The expensive finds are few and far between. Most of the stuff wouldn't sell at a garage sale. And as someone who is on a first name basis with the Salvation Army (I call it Sallie), I can tell you that most of the stuff, if taken to Sallie would be chucked by Sallie, because appliances often don't work, sports equipment is in bad shape, toys have mangled limbs and missing parts. Garage sale gone Gucci? Rarely.
Then there's the lack of "social consciousness". I myself have given away items from the swap area to those in need, and I can't imagine that I'm alone. One of my needy friends who lives outside Wellesley (house foreclosed on, fired from her job, gas about to be turned off) agreed that the vast majority of the stuff was junk.
Finally, that part about the "well-to-do" clientele. Agreed, this is not a junkyard for poor people. I won't coat it in high-fructose corn syrup for you: if there are poor people in Wellesley, I haven't seen them roaming around town. The only possibilities: an old preppy eccentric who has perhaps gone dissolute with The Drink, and Crazy Hat Lady, but she doesn't look exactly poor either, just exceedingly dotty. But despite the widespread wealth, it's not like the people who frequent Take It Or Leave It are swanning around in Lilly Pulitzer dresses. One patron comes every week from a home for the severely disabled. The disabled people stay in the car, while their caretaker stocks up on things for their center. Others seem, like me, tempermentally drawn to junk and junk culture.
The Take It Or Leave It area always gets the attention from reporters, but I think what was missed here was the most provocative quandary surrounding the entire Recycling Center: does it foster environmental consciousness among wealthy people, or does it allow people to keep consuming at rapacious rates, and still feeling like they are "doing something"?
There is no trash pick up in Wellesley. The really rich people with gigantic houses (the lower end have small, but still expensive houses, far smaller than people in cheaper suburbs could and do buy) and the medium rich with zero environmental conscience hire trash haulers, and couldn't even tell you where the recycling center is. The people who do go there care at least a little, enough to separate and pack their crap up in their cars and bring it over to recycle themselves in the appropriate bins. Are they often wearing khakis? Do they have nice (but rarely do you see behemoth) cars? Yes, many do, but with their trash, they also bring their kids, as I do. My son literally gets his hands dirty. He knows where the plastic goes, the green glass, he can tell you what corrugated cardboard is. He also sees people socializing and having a good time and I like to believe he will always think of recycling as a chore that's both important and fun.
But there is a problem with all this and therein lies the quandary: wouldn't it be better if rich folks just bought less stuff? Does going to this near-utopian recycling center offer a sort of penitence to people who can't find it in themselves to just reduce their consumption? This is a real possibility, and to me it's the most intriguing aspect of the place.
I think what stunk up the room with this NPR story really comes down to one question the reporter asked to someone who was taking something away from the Take It Or Leave It area: could you afford to buy this item you are taking for free? And of course she said "yes." And there was a guy who had some vacation properties who had furnished his places with finds at Take It Or Leave It. I understand, I get it, we all hate rich people. The idea of rich people getting a great deal sticks in the craw. But would it really have been better for the planet for these folks to go out and buy new stuff? Would it have been better for the people who took the time to drop that stuff off to just dump it in the trash compactor at the center, instead of trying to give their item a second life?