Crossing the Line

September 24, 2007

Personally I have not had a problem with throwing away things that are obviously trash. Things that are broken, spoiled food, ripped clothing, etc. But if an object is usable, it seems wasteful to throw it out. That must be the sticking point for me, whether something can be used – even if I don’t have a use for it.

The other day I was going through a box of old business papers and needed something to put my “to be shredded” papers in. I pulled an old plastic wastepaper basket out of a pile of such baskets, which are all stacked up inside each other. The one I pulled out had been with me since I was a kid – maybe close to 30 years? Anyway the plastic/rubber material had become brittle with age and the top rim broke when I pulled it out. Immediately I felt a sense of relief. The wastebasket had crossed the line from usable household tool to trash, and now I could throw it away without feeling guilty of being wasteful.

The feeling of relief did surprise me. What had really changed for this item to cross the line to trash? The item itself didn’t change that much (it could be repaired with tape and still used) – the change happened in how I perceive the item.

Another example of this is sorting through a pile of old t-shirts, and I find a threadbare shirt that I won’t wear out in public because of the condition. There is a moment of hesitation because it’s not trash, it’s not good enough to give to charity, I don’t really want it anymore but feel like I have no option but to put it back with my things. In that moment of turning the shirt over in my hands, holding it up to my chest, reading the tag, I might pull at the seams to vent my frustration. If it rips then I toss it in the trash without a second thought. The torn seam moved it across the line from good to trash.

What I’m realizing is that “the line” exists in my mind, not in the items. If I can change the way in which I perceive their potential usefulness, the line can be moved and more of the junk that is piled up around me can be thrown out without causing guilt or other mental distress.

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