Pondering waste in its many forms

Dennis Drabelle. Photo by Ron Rosenblum


Lately I’ve been thinking way too much about waste. The onslaught started a few months ago, when my partner and I joined the City of Asheville’s composting program. The chore of taking our slop bucket to the East Asheville Library branch has been a revelation — of maggots.

Before the entomologists among you get huffy, I can’t swear that the pinky-fingernail-sized wigglers that sometimes go berserk when I lift the lid of the library’s outdoor bin are actual, taxonomical maggots. It’s just that I love using that term for them because it rolls off the tongue so contemptuously.

I also acknowledge that these writhing gorgers are probably making a valuable contribution to the ultimate recycling of food scraps, but the sight of them gives me a feeling midway between fascination and the creeps — something like heebies without jeebies. If there isn’t already a collective noun for the creatures — the helminthological counterpart to “a gaggle of geese” or “a murder of crows” — I nominate “a hurl of maggots.”

Waste not, want not

Next, while out driving on a recent Saturday morning, I happened to hear a startling snatch of radio talk. During the complete-the-limerick segment of the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” it was revealed that a Dutch entrepreneur has invented a way to make fabric out of hair clippings swept up from barbershop floors. How did the show’s panelists react to this ingenious example of recycling? With disgust.

Have they never read “The Gift of the Magi,” the sentimental tale by Asheville’s own O. Henry, in which an impoverished wife cuts off and sells her long, lustrous hair to buy her husband a watch chain for Christmas without knowing that he just sold his watch to buy her a set of combs? Human hair as a useful commodity is nothing new, and to my ear, the Wait Waiters sounded like prigs.

Don’t tread on me

Then came an astonishing story reported by Will Hofmann last month in the Citizen Times, which was also the subject of a March 13 Brent Brown cartoon in Mountain Xpress. In case you missed it, the two co-proprietors of three highly rated Airbnbs in Weaverville have been accused of dumping the treated contents of their composting toilets into the woods on their property.

Far from being contrite, the owners as presented by the article were defiant, with their unorthodoxy embracing more than just doo-doo disposal. Arguably, their business plan might be summed up as To Hell with Permits. According to the story, Buncombe County claims the owners failed to obtain certificates of occupancy for the rentals, ignored the approval requirements for plugging into the local electrical grid or connecting toilets to wastewater management facilities. And on the story goes, all the way to the law of process-serving, which the accused seem to want to unilaterally rewrite to say that the only valid method is by certified mail.

Continuing the nose-wrinkling theme, the article notes that one of the Weaverville Two argues that bears get to poop freely in the woods, as do “people of the Amazon rainforest,” the implication being, apparently, that Buncombe County visitors should in effect be able to do the same.

The article does not identify either of the alleged rebels as a trained scatologist, but even an amateur student of scat could set them straight: Being hopelessly illiterate, bears have a constitutional right not to apply for permits. The people of the Amazon rainforest have yet to weigh in on the issue, but the county has gone ahead without them by bringing a lawsuit against the pair. The whole affair might be summed up by adding a fillip to one of the tea party’s slogans: Don’t Tread On Me — or On My Odoriferous Backyard.

Waste of yore

Throughout all this storm and stress, as it happens, I’ve been reading Charles Dickens’ last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend. (It’s taken me so long because the edition I have was published by Penguin Classics, an outfit not known for the largeness of its print, and the book runs to 911 pages.) The novel’s central symbol is a mound of “dust,” a Victorian-era euphemism for garbage, and one of the main characters is the mound’s owner.

As an endnote explains, “Dust Mounds hover over Our Mutual Friend just as they did over suburban London. Domestic refuse was collected by contractors and dumped in private dust-yards. The heaps were then sorted into their various constituents and sold. … The sifters looked for coal, vegetable matter to be used as manure, pans, crockery and earthenware, all sold for use in road making, bones, which were sold to soap makers, rags, which were used in paper making, and metal to be used again. Ashes themselves, even, were of value, being sold as ‘brieze’ to brick makers. Writers on the subject never deny the foulness of the heaps, but it is clear that they were good business.”

London’s rampant poverty surely had a lot to do with this early recycling venture. Still, for all the Victorians’ squeamishness about the human body, they evidently had a healthy regard for stuff we might dismiss as so much crap.

Meanwhile back in Asheville, I want to address a plea to our Composting Czar. If you can keep the bugs out of the system, I, for one, will be a happy composter.

Dennis Drabelle is a writer who lives in Haw Creek.


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2 thoughts on “Pondering waste in its many forms

  1. Mike Rains

    Fun, very well written, tongue in cheek, opinion piece.

    On a more serious note, driving somewhere, or having a business drive to your house, each to “accomplish” composting of food waste seems to me to be the height of American folly. That is, burning additional fossil fuels to compost.

    There are myriad inexpensive products to compost at home. And if you don’t have space for composting, the likely best “overall” alternative for the environment is to let the food wast compost in the landfill.

    • KW

      Agreed. Asheville keeps doing this crazy inefficient crap—like razing forests and then praising the planting of saplings.

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