How trash bins suddenly seem important

It’s funny how some things in life are never given a second thought, and then suddenly they gain deeper meaning. For the first nearly 6 years of my son’s life, outside trash cans were simply the annoying things you had to fill often so the house wouldn’t smell like a garbage dump. Since moving to Chicago, though, we have had more discussions about these filthy plastic things than I could have ever predicted!

It started with the discovery that not everyone here has an easy means to recycle. I spent my first two months here venting about the fact that each time I would go outside to take out our family’s recycling, our bin was already full – with someone else’s recycling! This was a continual frustration for me, and much to my Facebook friends’ dismay, something I would comment about often.

The things I would say if I ever caught the person using my non-community recycling bin as their own! Then one day it happened…I was taking out our recycling when a man drove up in his Prius, smiled and said hello, and took all of his recycling bags out of his trunk and put them in MY bin! And what did my brave self do? I smiled and said hello back, then promptly put my recycling into a neighbor’s less full bin.

I have also been fascinated by how trash cans also seem to be communal property. I would often come home to find people rummaging through our trash cans, trying to avoid eye contact with me. How uncomfortable for both of us on so many levels. While I initially felt pure irritation at people using my blue bin as their own personal recycling site, I felt humbled by the fact that people in my neighborhood find it necessary to go through other’s trash to survive.

I often consider this when I am discussing my own finances, and I am grateful to have the luxury of a cozy, warm bed to sleep in and a refrigerator full of food every day. Watching people pore through our trash has become a teachable moment in our home. On the coldest of winter days, Caleb and I set out our less used winter boots on top of our trash bin. They were snapped up in about 10 minutes. We have left out blankets, clothing, household items, and children’s toys, all with a discussion about the fact that some people don’t have the simplest things that we deem necessities and it is our job to help make their lives a little bit easier.

Caleb now has a greater understanding of the fact that, while he may not have all of the things that his friends have, he has more than what he needs. He suggests we go to Wicker Park to bring food and clothing to the people who don’t have homes, and asks really poignant questions about what might happen to cause someone to not have any money or even a home. I’m sure this is all really difficult for a 6-year-old to wrap his brain around; it is surely a challenging topic for the grown-ups as well.

My toughest Mom-moment in this regard was when Caleb and I were returning home at night from one of our adventures, and there was a dad and his son, who was probably only about 8 years old, rummaging through our trash cans. They looked down in shame, and moved on to the next trash can in the alley. Explaining why any child would need to do this and how he should feel secure that he’ll never have to do this was a really complex conversation. Our children deserve to know the realities of poverty, without frightening them, so that they can become empowered to make a difference. I’m interested – How do you discuss these issues with your children? Do you discuss them at all? Do they get a censored version? Let me know – I’d love to hear everyone’s comments!

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