What The Amount Of Garbage Someone Has Says About Their Wealth

The trash on my street hides conspicuous consumption.

person taking trash bag out Alohaflaminggo / Shutterstock

Massive green bins line the curb like sentries keeping watch over the neighborhood. Handles face outward to assist sanitation collectors and occasionally, a neatly tied plastic bag sits next to an army green can.

It is still dark at 6:30 as I make my morning lap around the block with my dog, Harlow. Every so often, she pulls up short, excited by a smell radiating from the garbage, but I tug on her leash and guide her onward. Every day we make this walk, but today, the cans draw my attention.


Over the past nine years, pulling my bins to the curb three days a week has become normal, and like my neighbors, I stuff my garbage down each Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday night.

At the end of the block, Harlow and I pause before crossing the street and I glance around. The sun sits low in the sky, giving a hazy purple-gray tint to the world around me, and the street lights still cast a warm, golden glow across the neighborhood. Despite the peaceful atmosphere, discomfort nibbles at me.

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I zero my gaze in on the garbage bins. In order to fill those bins as often as we do, we are buying and discarding dozens of items per week.


What does our garbage say about us?

A fact: garbage is a luxury.

When I was a child living along the Detroit River, we mended, fixed, reused, and handed down. If it didn’t fall into one of those categories, the item was then, and only then, placed in the trash. Same with food. We ate whatever leftovers we had until the containers were scrapped clean. Food never spoiled because we ate it.

We also had a neighborhood “garbage picker,” a man who biked through the alleys the night before garbage day and searched the cans for treasures.

None of us knew what he did with his findings, but we kids would point and laugh that someone would pick through the trash. There was nothing worth value there, so why did he bother?


It wasn’t until later, as a teen and young twenty-something, that my friends and I discovered the value of digging through other people’s cast-offs. We found functioning microwaves, bikes, tools, and even gently used furniture that had been left on San Francisco sidewalks.

One of my more entrepreneurial friends often fixed and cleaned up his findings and sold them on Craigslist. In fact, he was able to pay his rent because of his side hustle.

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Here’s the truth: my family and friends threw away very little because we had very little. We weren’t filling bin after bin because we didn’t have the means for massive consumption. You don’t produce much garbage when you aren’t buying anything.


Over the past year, the Buy Nothing movement has become popular in my circle of friends. The idea is simple if you have something to give try to match with someone with a need at no cost. Part of the appeal is reducing the amount of unnecessary garbage, but it also plays on the altruistic notion of “doing good.”

“It’s about gratitude,” Kirby said as we stood on the sidewalk outside my San Francisco home. My husband James and I were packing our house up for sale, and Kirby ran a local Buy Nothing group. We had asked him to identify items that could be salvaged because five generations in one home had left us with an abundance of things.

Around us, haulers hefted and tossed the non-salvageable items onto trucks: old, decaying magazines, broken ladders, and chairs, faded and frayed curtains. Every so often, Kirby stopped them, plucked something from their pile, and added it to the growing collection in his Subaru wagon.

“Every item finds a home,” Kirby said. He believed that positive energy attracts positive energy, and all things circle back to the original intent. “All I ask is that the new owners say thank you.”


He shrugged. “Some people don’t appreciate what they have, but many do. I find those who do.”

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Wealthy people will always have more garbage.

A fact: when you have more money, you can buy more stuff.

No, not all wealthy people are wasteful, but the opportunity exists for them to consume more than the average poorer person. Throwing away spoiled food — or even letting food spoil in the first place — is a luxury many can’t afford. And it’s not unusual to replace a new shirt because a button fell off or buy random items for amusement purposes only.

Aside from the garbage bins, nothing highlights this more than the Amazon trucks circling my neighborhood daily, delivering boxes and boxes of stuff. All that packaging and whatever the new item is replacing ends up in the bins. It’s hidden conspicuous consumption — unless you see the garbage bins at 6:30 in the morning.


The rumbling of the garbage truck startles me. Workers hang on to the back of the truck as it whips around the corner.

When the truck grinds to a halt, they leap off in unison to collect the bins.

The workers heft them easily over their heads and shake the contents free before running to the next set of bins. Haul, heft, shake. Over and over again until they pause while the driver compacts the mess. Then they’re off, tossing and throwing more of my and my neighbors’ excessive garbage into the truck.

Harlow yanks at her leash, eager to finish her walk. We cross the street and I can’t help but think about how later today, Amazon trucks will replace the garbage trucks, and it will all start over.


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Mia’s memoir Always Yours, Bee, about her husband’s accident and her subsequent spiral into mental illness, was selected by BookBub as one of “15 Powerful Memoirs to Read in 2021.” She is also the author of the women’s fiction series, The Waterford Novels.