Driving, walking or cycling through any city in the Pacific Northwest, it’s virtually impossible to miss the many objects that are not where they should be. Articles of clothing, plastic buckets, single shoes and wrappers for any number of food and food-adjacent items are piled on hillsides, in greenbelts and in the doorways of businesses shuttered by COVID-19.
We are all in the midst of varying degrees of loss.
Whether it’s a lost job, a lost loved one or just a lost sense of community and belonging, we are mired in hard times. And, thanks to consumption, packaging and dwindling municipal services, which mean few places to dispose of the refuse that we literally all create just by being people, our streets and parks and alleys and greenspaces are peppered with litter.
There are a lot of reasons why the experience of homelessness results in more waste. Single-serving packages, plastic utensils and disposable hand warmers are the staples of life outside. Encampment sweeps, too, contribute to this rotating door of material belongings: Why would a person take good care of their personal effects if they are only going to be trashed by the police and city contractors?
The eco-conscious, less-plastic movement that’s been sweeping the middle class is nearly impossible when you can’t reliably wash out a metal straw. Instead of trying to make homeless folks “clean up” (often without providing receptacles for such an effort), we might consider finding ways to improve the lives of folks living outside so that they aren’t stuck in a loop of plastic and paper.
But even those who are trying to cut down on waste will make waste. We live in a wasteful culture.
The only difference between housed people and unhoused people, at least when it comes to waste, is visibility.
People who live inside may think that they make less garbage than homeless folks — but often, they’re just enjoying the ability to dispose of waste in a way that is convenient and discrete.
All of which is to say: Hard times beget waste. The sight of tarps, tents and plastic bags on the side of the highway isn’t a sign of laziness but a symptom of poverty and lacking resources. But rather than addressing the hard times themselves, many neighbors are starting from the perceived sources of the waste and working backwards.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer living in Portland.
Read more of the Feb. 3-9, 2021 issue.