Trash Season

Why I love curbside collection weekend.

Some of my trash finds.

Every year in late January, when the excitement of the holidays has died down and everyone is dutifully back at work, a very special event dawns on the calendar. A weekend of delight and wonder and unparalleled bounty. A weekend that I anticipate with only slightly less fervor than Christmas, and — now that I’m in my mid-twenties — perhaps a little more fervor than my birthday. I refer, of course, to my neighborhood’s annual curbside collection weekend.

Not every city has one of these, and they sometimes go by different names: hard rubbish, or council collection, or curbside pickup. The principle is this: every year, residents get the chance to freely dispose of any unwanted furniture, appliances, or general bits and pieces that are too large to go in the regular trash. You put it out on the curb on Saturday or Sunday, and starting Monday, the city council truck comes around and picks it up for you.

Unless, of course, one of your neighbors gets in first.

This is what makes curbside collection such a good time for those of us who take a childlike delight in hunting for treasure (that’s me) and are on the cheap side (that’s me again). I fucking love curbside collection. Starting from around midweek the week before collection, and reaching a peak on Saturday afternoon, there are literal piles of free stuff lying out on the side of the road. In a world where our jobs are more and more precarious, the cost of living is only getting higher, and few people my age can seriously anticipate owning a home, curbside collection is like one golden weekend of respite: something for free! Really and truly for free! You can’t afford a bookshelf? A couch? A set of chairs? Here, take this one. It’s free.

Before we go any further, the answers to two questions I anticipate will arise:

Q: Isn’t it gross to get stuff from the trash?

A: Not at all. Obviously you should stay away from anything genuinely dirty, moldy, or otherwise sketchy-looking, but people often put out the kind of stuff you wouldn’t think twice about buying in a second-hand store. Because it’s on the curb, it’s crossed some weird ontological boundary into “trash,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not perfectly fine!

Q. But what about bedbugs?

A: Would it sound terribly privileged to say that they’re not a big problem where I live? Because they’re not a big problem where I live. We’ve never had a warning issued and no one I know has ever had them. That said, YMMV, so by all means exercise appropriate caution.

It would be thrillingly easy to furnish an entire house through curbside collection. (Except for the appliances — although I did once find a working vacuum cleaner, which I use to this day.) As the level of wealth in my neighborhood has increased over the past few years, the quality of curbside collection material has also gone up. My suitcase is from the trash, and so is my weekend bag, and my staple black cardigan, and our bedroom mirror, and our best kitchen chair. This year I found a barely-used leather desk chair and a blue ceramic pot for our fiddle leaf fig, and we replaced the old cotton throw covering our couch with a much nicer one that I found around the corner. The trash is also good for boring-but-useful stuff: coat hangers. Glass storage jars. Every laundry hamper and wicker basket I’ve ever owned. Once I found a silk-shaded lamp with a bulb already in and the cord still wrapped in twine, and this year I found a two-person tent. (Regular Billfold readers need not worry — I plan to give it a test run in the backyard before taking it on any camping trips.)

The Cost of Hiking the Overland Track

At first, roaming the streets on curbside collection weekend is incredibly exciting, with each pile of trash radiating promise. As you collect more and more good stuff, your exhilaration increases until you’re in the grip of a bona fide trash high. But after an hour or so, all that excess starts to feel overwhelming: you could go home now, but what if your dream item is on the next street, or the next block? What if you miss it and it goes to the dump, or (worse) becomes someone else’s standout find? At a party on the Sunday night of this year’s curbside collection weekend, I confirmed this feeling with some friends: trash FOMO is real. You can start to feel almost obligated to take stuff, just because it’s there. Once, I saw a woman putting a gorgeous full-size Persian rug out for collection. I was riding my bike to work, and I have absolutely no space for such an item anyway, but part of me wanted to stop and grab it, drag it back down the hill to my house, because how could you throw something like that away?

The answer, perhaps, lies in one of the more disturbing facts that underlies the wonder of curbside collection: this stuff is literally worthless. So few things have any real resale value, and when you consider the time and effort it takes to photograph an item, post it on a used marketplace site, and wait through five inevitable no-show buyers before you finally find someone willing to take it off your hands for 10 percent of the purchase price if you’re lucky — well, the trash starts to seem like a better option. This translates to some great scores for the curbside hunters among us, but it also says something unappealing about the consumer society we live in. Even if you want to fix, repurpose, and reuse your old stuff, everything is set up to encourage you to throw away and buy new again. Repairs can be an expensive hassle, planned obsolescence gets in the way of the best intentions, and when new stuff is so cheap and readily available, why not just buy it?

The Cost of Fixing What Needs Fixing

This year in a newsletter, my local councillor — while acknowledging that he and his housemates always look forward to curbside collection as a chance to upgrade their furniture — wondered whether the service “might in some ways be enabling a high-consumption, high-waste lifestyle.” It’s hard not to ponder this as you stare down a street lined with piles of stuff, stuff, stuff. Curbside collection is great not only because you can score free things, but also because you can get rid of your own unwanted items as if by magic — just put them out and the council truck will come and pick them up! And take them, uh, away. It’s that magical “away” that you don’t want to think too hard about, but it’s as much a part of curbside collection as my new desk chair is.

That said, removing the pickup service wouldn’t change the fact that commodities are cheap to buy, quick to break, and easy to replace. If anything, curbside collection enables a level of hyper-local reuse and recycling that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. In my neighborhood, which is rapidly gentrifying but still maintains what the gentrifying property developers refer to as “bohemian character,” there is very little stigma attached to looking through your neighbors’ curbside collection piles. In fact, a nice community feeling emerges around the shared activity of urban treasure-hunting. This year, when I went out looking for stuff on Saturday morning, the streets were full of others doing the same. When I got home later that afternoon, my neighbor brought over a cricket bat he’d found on the curb, because he knows we like to play street cricket in the summer. Last year, when some friends decided to take curbside collection as an opportunity to clean out their sharehouse — a project that resulted in what they call the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on their curb — their trash had reduced by one-third by the time the truck came. People wandered up and asked them about it, commented on items, and usually walked away with something for free. In a sense, even though curbside collection is a symptom of a throwaway, easy-break consumer culture, it can also be a small grassroots festival of anti-capitalism. There’s a sense of jubilation at curbside collection time, of having beaten the system and gotten away with something vaguely subversive: how often, after all, do you find something for free?

For me, one of the best parts of curbside collection weekend is that if you change your mind about something, there’s no buyer’s remorse. You don’t have to stand around in front of an item, cocking your head to the side and trying to convince yourself that you really like it. It can just go right back to whence it came, and usually find a new home with someone who appreciates it. Take, for instance, an end table that I picked up during this year’s curbside collection weekend. At first, I liked the shabby-chic faded white paint, but then I got it home and realized that the Queen Anne legs and the embossed flowers weren’t really my style. Besides which, I live in a tiny flat with no room for superfluous furniture like end tables. It just wasn’t right for me, and so I carted it straight back out to the curb. When I left the house again twenty minutes later, it was gone.

Joanna Horton is a writer and radio producer living in Brisbane, Australia. Her work has appeared on The Millions, The Toast, 4ZZZ, and is forthcoming at The Fem. You can read her blog here, listen to her radio show here, and follow her on Twitter: @joanna_horton

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