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Trash through the years


By: Sawyer Denning

We worked for a week at a site in Baudette, Minn. on a household property whose owner in the 1960s dumped trash into their yard, which sloped gradually downward into a lake. Random objects buried in shards of broken glass and rusty scraps of tin told of its age: blue and green mason jars, soft plastic doll limbs, simple fishing reels, shattered bakelite kitchenware. Where the land curved down into the lake, the trash was more deeply layered. Each shovel full of broken glass and metal revealed another layer underneath. I joked with a co-worker about discovering a new kind of geological stratum. We found more recent trash scattered about the property as well: bits of foam board insulation, plastic wrapping, beer and pop cans.

Another week we cleaned up a Wildlife Management Area. Someone began dumping their trash in the area, and once one person started, others dumped their trash there as well. The trash in this area was more apparently recent than the trash in Baudette. Tires, a plastic children’s pool printed with reef fish, bits of concrete, beer cans, pop bottles, cardboard, garbage bags filled with paper and food waste, cinder blocks and piles of brush. After removing all the trash and loading it onto a trailer, we stacked the brush into a single pile in the middle of the area. The project host would burn the pile this winter.

Another day later in the year, our crew cleaned trash from an area in the forest off an ATV trail with a small gravel pit and pond. The trash in this area indicated its recreational use: shotgun shells, beer cans, clay pigeons, and cigarette butts. The area had been used for dumping as well, we loaded mattresses, a washing machine, and old cabinets onto a trailer to take to the nearest waste transfer station.

While working at each of these sites, I didn’t grudge anyone for polluting the land. I was more interested in what constituted the trash, the differences between the trash in each site, and the different ways in which people came to feel empowered to throw their waste wherever they chose. However, for every bit of trash I picked up with a shovel, or with my hands in leather gloves, there is no telling how many other individuals chose to take their trash with them instead of leaving it or dumping it there.