Monday, June 30, 2003

Swap meet

For the last year and a half, Leigh and I have lived in an apartment complex in Raleigh, NC. If you look at this Mapquest map and switch over to the aerial photo, you can see that the complex has 23 buildings containing 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom aparments. There's roughly 300 individual apartments in the complex.

I don't know how they handle trash in apartment complexes around the country, but in Raleigh it is normal for there to be a central location somewhere in the complex where everyone takes their trash. Here's what the central location looks like in my complex:

This trash collection point is located right in the middle of the complex, next to the little building that has all the mailboxes in it. You can see the square hole in the wall. That's where you throw your bags of trash. Behind the brick wall is a very large trash compactor. Every few hours a maintenance guy comes around and compacts the trash into a big metal container measuring prehaps 6 ft x 6 ft x 20 ft. A couple of times a week a flatbed truck comes, hauls the container away and replaces it with an empty one.

So what you have is a central location where 300 households leave their trash. Every day you see people walking or driving to this central point. They are easy to spot -- either they are carrying big white garbage bags by hand, or they place the bags on the hood or trunk of the car and drive slowly over. Since Leigh and I have 4 kids, we generate a good bit of trash and it seems like I am taking trash over there on a near daily basis.

What is so interesting about this central trash location is the social aspect of it. There might also be a message about the general "goodness" of humanity in there somewhere as well. You notice very quickly that people use the central trash location to give things to one another. Anyone who has stuff that is "too good" to throw away will leave it on the sidewalk along the brick wall. You find people leaving all kinds of stuff -- tables, chairs, TVs, computers, lamps, dishes, books, boxes of magazines and so on.

Yesterday when I took the trash, there were two big green garbage bags on the sidewalk. Taped to each one was a piece of paper that said, "Good Clothes". The bags were open and inside you could see blue jeans, shirts, etc. I walked back to my apartment to get the camera, because I'd never seen the surplus items on the sidewalk labeled before. By the time I got back, the clothes were gone but there were 2 sofas instead:

To be fair, there is no way to get a sofa into the compactor. But the point is that people leave a wide variety of things on the sidewalk, and the stuff does not last for long. The two bags of clothes lasted less than ten minutes, and the sofas lasted less than an hour.

There are at least three lessons here:
  1. People recognize that a lot of the things that they throw away are not "trash". The items are simply no longer needed, and might be useful to someone else.
  2. Given a way to do it, people will gladly make those items available to others for free. They will often take extra time to make this process easier for the recipients -- for example, sorting good clothes into separate bags and labeling the bags.
  3. By creating a convenient and central sharing point for the things that people want to give to others, sharing becomes a part of the community.

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