Once, I drove around in the dark, casing people’s trash cans. I wore dark clothing and gloves, and stealthily got out to take whole bags of trash and put them in the trunk of my black sedan—an act I knew to be legal per many episodes of Law & Order. I even persuaded a friend to go along. We are no longer friends for some reason.
Maybe this reason: When I got home I took the bags into the garage, closed the door, and dumped them on the ground. I spread the crumpled papers and empty plastic bottles and nasty paper towels and crushed cell-phone bits and half-eaten pizzas all around, and ... I took notes. I was trying to figure this out: What does our trash say about us?
Freak. It says I’m a freak.
It also says a lot about how much we value the valueless; how we love the disposable. It begs us to wonder what, as a community, we’re attached to, and what we’re fine leaving on the curb to be disappeared, physically and metaphorically. It does. Really. I took notes.
I also took notes when three of the Valley’s recycling plants caught fire this summer. The cause is not yet known; but I saw the smoke billowing from one fire in North Las Vegas and stopped to take a few pics, because that’s how we respond to possible tragedies now. As I cropped and saved and littered on Twitter, I thought about the layers of irony, of waste and pollution, of poetry. The materials we had planned to sort, save, clean, repackage, sell, ship to some manufacturing plant far away by truck and freighter, and ostensibly reuse, were presumably incinerated. I recalled how people sometimes refer to forest fires as Mother Nature’s Maid, cleaning out tangled underbrush to provide a fresh start for the ecological cycle.
And because I tend to recycle imperfect metaphors, I was again dwelling on the recycling center fires when I read that it’s time to implode the Riviera. I heard the familiar punditry about devaluing history; how we live in a city where value is shamelessly tied to disposability—echoes of our garbology. In fact I read a book called An Ontology of Trash, in which philosopher Greg Kennedy hopped from Buddhism to Heidegger to assert that the way disposability informs our lives devalues our humanity, as our inability to maintain objects translates to our inability to care for people. At least that’s what I took from it. I scrapped the rest.
Here in Las Vegas we sell disposability: instant gratification that disappears; Snapchat values; What happens here ... (although the longevity of that slogan itself merits sustainability points). We erase and reinvent repeatedly (and we erase and restate that sentiment repeatedly), perpetuating ephemeral value.
We also stand next to one of the nation’s biggest landfills, Apex, some 2,200-acres of rolling desert hills northeast of the Valley reserved for hiding trash. It’s only about 320-acres full, at about 300 feet deep. So, very conscientiously, we’ve saved a lot of space for disappearing our future disposables. We’re prepared for our recklessness. We plan to produce more stuff and pack it in the Earth.
Still, when I see people furtively Dumpster diving, I ruminate on Apex. Whether I see Freegans—members of a movement that mixes a concern for sustainability with a disdain for stuff-creating capitalism—or the hungry—members of our society who are hungry—I recall that landfill where the trash they’re scavenging would otherwise end up. I took a tour of Apex once, bumping along hills of garbage in a pickup truck, the stench of waste nearly killing me, and I watched bulldozers shove ton after ton of one-time commodities into carefully lined pits to be forgotten. In waste management terms, it seems efficient. But deep in my disposable heart, it doesn’t feel right.
A couple of years ago, I flanked the scene of a hoarder’s condemned house with other media. The man who’d lived in the Summerlin home had accumulated more than 20 tons of stuff—so much that he could no longer walk through the heaps of furniture and appliances and roaches, stereo speakers and pet feces and stacks of magazines. He had to crawl atop them, and he slept on the back porch.
His neighbors were appalled, and the city had to haul most of what was now trash to the landfill. As I walked around the neighborhood, I met a woman who was spontaneously hosting a garage sale. She had very few items: a table and chairs, some blouses on hangers, an elliptical machine, a few pots and pans. “I’m not a hoarder,” she assured me, and laughed. “But that scares me. It took over his life, you know. What if that happened [to me]?” She seemed to imbue the stuff with the power, rather than the man. It was as if the stuff itself, like some maniacal, animated blob, consumed him, and threatened to consume her. I took some blouses off of her hands, knowing I wouldn’t wear them. I slept unwell that night, dreaming that I was sleeping on Apex’s back porch.