Heart of a suburb: the postmodern dump

On a recent Saturday afternoon a white convertible sprouting an almost inconceivable quantity of leafy tree branches passed along Central Avenue here like a Fourth of July float of Big Bird's nest. The driver, all but invisible, was headed into the Needham Recycling and Transfer Station, a place the local folks refer to simply as "the dump."

Last year the residents of this affluent suburb southwest of Boston – population 28,000 – jettisoned 7,555 tons of solid waste, 4,421 tons of yard waste, and 4,942 tons of recyclable plastics, cardboard, paper, motor oils, tires, and other re-usable materials at the dump. What's extraordinary isn't the quantity – residents here are typical consumers – but the fact that Needhamites hauled the lion's share of all this flotsam to the dump themselves.

Lisa Katz Silverman is one of them. In stifling heat and humidity she emptied a container of recyclable cans and bottles into a huge dumpster. Ms. Silverman moved here a year ago from Chicago, where she simply left her trash at the curb. When she first learned that her neighbors here did their own dump runs, she was "appalled." But now she's a convert who finds the dump convenient, gets satisfaction in recycling, and describes tossing her own trash as "cathartic."

The dump is such a novelty, says Ms. Silverman, that "we bring all our out-of-town guests here."

Indeed, on a recent dump visit she was joined by her teenage daughter, Rachel, and Rachel's friend, Lanie Abisdris, visiting from Chicago.

Stand near the entrance to the dump on any given Saturday and you'll see a steady parade of station wagons, pick-up trucks, improvised trailers, and even luxury cars loaded with the detritus of a consumer society ... and then some.

You might assume that a budget crisis is responsible for largely upper middle-class Americans assuming a task that involves tossing bottles into dumpsters amidst buzzing bees, standing in muck to off-load yard waste, and heaving heavy bags of trash into malodorous dumpsters in summer's heat and winter's chill. But you would be wrong.

About 10 years ago the town survey asked whether residents preferred to switch to curbside pickup or to continue hauling trash to the dump as they had since Needham was a more rural community. It wasn't even close – 80 percent opted for self-service.

There are private contractors who will relieve you of the burden, yet today 85 percent of Needham households have a $20 dump sticker that provides access to what has become a true center of civic activity.

"People just don't go to the dump," says Charles Laffey, Needham RTS superintendent. "It's a gathering spot and a part of people's established routines that they enjoy. They come here to converse and to talk politics."

Indeed, no political candidate – whether for town selectman, state senate, or even Congress – can afford to skip the dump before an election. Not only do candidates gather signatures on nomination papers here, they line up across from the dump exit with placards, waving as residents drive by.

"This is a powerful place from a political point of view," says Mr. Laffey. "It's the most utilized facility in the town."

There are aesthetic reasons for people's preference for the drop-off system.

"People view drop-off as preferable to the alternative of unsightly trash at the curb and the noise of trucks in the neighborhood," says James Goldstein, a Needham resident and director of the Sustainable Communities Group at the Tellus Institute, a Boston research and consulting organization. Curbside trash, he adds, also invites raccoons and other animals that can often leave a huge mess.

Needham is a relative anomaly, says Mr. Goldstein. Most suburbs have curb-side pick up, but those that don't tend to be more affluent communities. Wellesley, which borders Needham, is one of the most wealthiest towns in the state and it, too, has a drop-off system.But Needham's commitment to do-it-yourself trash hauling seems exceptional, given that most residents could afford to pay a private contractor to do the dirty work for them. Barnstable, on Cape Cod, has a drop-off system, too, but 80 percent of households there pay a subscription hauler.

The dump itself is something like the American equivalent of a Central Asian bazaar. There's a "trading post" of sorts where residents can leave unwanted, but still functional, goods for others to take. There are Goodwill and Salvation Army clothing drops. Local organizations such as the scouts and parent-teacher conferences take turns sorting deposit bottles and cans and returning them for the cash. Separate dumpsters accept trash, cardboard, recyclable paper, and plastics. There are areas for discarded computers and TVs, metals, batteries and paints. Heavy machinery moves yard waste into huge mounds where it is composted into loam, available – on a self-serve basis – for two bucks a barrel.

Eileen Martin, a registered nurse, has lived in Needham for 15 years and loves the dump for the opportunity it affords to observe human behavior. "You get to see what kind of people live in your town," she says. "You see who recycles and who doesn't, who brings their kids, who drops off secondhand stuff and who fixes it up."

Ms. Martin, who used dumps across the country to furnish apartments she lived in when she was younger, has scored several finds at the Needham dump including "a beautiful blue glass vase," scrubbed and "given to a friend who wouldn't think of trash picking at the dump," a bookstand, and a set of six glass sundae dishes. Ms. Martin also thinks the do-it-yourself style of trash disposal makes people feel like they've contributed. But, in the end, the dump is woven into the fabric of community life here. "The dump," she says, "is part of the flavor of the town."

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