It’s not where you might think.
Giving the perfect gift is hard. But I can help you nail it this year. Unlike the catalogs, flyers, emails, texts, and commercials you’ve been bombarded with since Halloween, I’m not going to recommend an item or a store. I’m not going to give you a list of gadgets or books to buy.
But I am going to give you a killer recommendation for where you should go to start your holiday shopping.
Grab a coffee, hit the road, and head to your local dump. I’m often told that I should say “Transfer Station” or “Recycling Center”, but I think “Dump” more accurately reflects what people do there, so I’m sticking with it.
When you get to the dump, just hang out and watch for a while. See what happens.
I got hooked on checking out the dump after I took a group of students for a tour of our local state-of-the-art dump — er — transfer station. We had a tour guide who took us behind the scenes for a look at all the moving parts.
When we went around to the back of the building, there were enormous concrete bays where workers drove around pieces of equipment like bobcats and mini-excavators. It looked like a scene from a Lego movie or a children's’ book about construction sites.
The bays on the right side each held a type of recyclable material. On the front side of the building, vehicles pulled up and emptied their barrels and bags into the appropriate chutes. From our vantage point, about thirty feet below the cars, there was the constant clatter of aluminum cans, wine bottles, and tin soup cans raining down from above.
The real eye-opener, though, was the bay for true the true trash. It’s where people came with their unwanted everything. It was smelly, gross and busy. There was a truck with an open metal container like the kind you’d see on a container ship in a movie about selling drugs in third world countries. People threw their stuff from above so it landed with a soft thud in the container.
Watching these huge metal boxes fill with trash was a life-changing moment. From where we stood, we could see the contents of the container, visible for only a moment before the next layers of trash them over.
At first, I noticed bags of household trash. They were white, black, clear, neatly tied with a red plastic bow at the top. But then I started to spot other items as well. Toasters. Blenders. Coffee makers. Single sneakers.
Then I noticed the kids' toys. Dollhouses, squirt guns, tricycles. Swimming pools, deflated pool floats, lawn chairs. Barbies, nerf guns, sleeping bags.
There were decorations too. Holiday wreaths, artificial Christmas trees. Strings of lights, plastic bows, and once-lighted snowmen. Long-dead potted plants, pieces of a manger scene, folded and dented.
All of it, once purchased-with hard-earned dollars or ill-used credit, had been discarded without a second thought.
Mike, our tour guide let us know that the trucks we saw that day were headed to a garbage incinerator several miles away, where the contents would be burned to generate electricity. And he didn’t mention this, but incinerating trash releases harmful chemicals into the air, reducing air quality and putting people at risk for many health problems.
Since that day, I’ve never thought about consumer culture the same way.
Back to you, though, and your holiday shopping.
If you start your holiday shopping at the dump, you’ll start to see what I realized that day as I watched people discard their unwanted stuff.
Most of the crap for sale in stores is just a step or two away from being useless. The cheap, pretty, twinkly stuff that retailers shove in our faces will end up at the dump sooner than later. Everything is so cheap, so cool and so temporary.
The only difference between the thousands of tons of discarded decorations in landfills and the thousands of tons of unsold decorations at Target and Walmart this year is that the former has already been gazed at for a few months and the latter has yet to be gazed upon.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do any holiday shopping. Go crazy. Spend your money and seek out the sales. But do it with the dump in mind. Don’t buy things that will get tossed within the next few months. Don’t get sucked into buying plastic trinkets that will be enjoyed for moments and then either spend centuries breaking down in a landfill or seconds in an incinerator before releasing sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.
Skip the crappy toys that will break before new years. Pass on the cheaply made pajama sets that won’t make it through the wash half a dozen times. Don’t buy stuff that’s basically pre-garbage.
You might think you can’t afford high-quality stuff, but I’d say if money is a concern, you also can’t afford to buy stuff that will go directly to the dump within a few months. Instead, spend your money on things that will get used heavily. Spend your money on experiences that lead to lasting memories. Spend your money on consumables that will be used up instead of sent to the dump. When I first met my husband, he always put expensive cans of soup on his Christmas list. I thought it was strange then, but now I get it.
It goes against every message you hear this time of year, but you can also buy fewer things that are of better quality. It’s ok to buy someone one gift instead of several. It’s ok if there are empty gaps under your tree this year.
Sure, you want a magical Christmas. But you know what’s magical? Right now, my son is wearing a fleece top that my grandmother bought for my niece in 2010 for Christmas. It’s been passed down through four kids and now he loves it. My grandmother is long dead, but when I put it on him, I picture her choosing the print and ordering it by phone instead of online. I feel close to her, and for me, that’s magic. It’s magic that wouldn’t have happened, had she picked out a cheap trash-bound top instead of a high-quality one.
Holiday shopping shouldn’t be about a frantic race to abundance. Contrary to what stores would have you believe, you don’t have to buy a lot. In fact, spending too much, rushing from store to store for deals, stressing about buying enough is exactly the wrong thing to focus on.
Instead, shop local, shop thoughtful, and shop for ten years down the road. We’ll all be healthier and wealthier for it.
In case you are wondering, yes, I’m serious. I think you should all visit your local dump. It is eye-opening and could change your perspective for life. But I guess you could also just get the gist of it from what I wrote above too.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the dump. Please share. And happy trash-free holidays.