The Boomer Way to Deal with Trash and Garbage

The very definition of what it means to be a baby boomer — born in the immediate two decades following World War II — means we had a front-row seat at the dawning of the Consumer Age that begat the Age of the Disposable Everything. Fortune magazine seemed to be the ones to fire the starting gun, writing in 1946, “The Great American Boom is on.”

By 1950, polyethylene replaced wax as a coating for hot beverage cups, as the next few years saw an increase in the amount of convenience foods that were offered in frozen, canned, dried and boxed packages. In 1953, Swanson introduced the first TV dinner, and President Eisenhower’s chairman for the Council of Economic Advisers proclaimed that the economy’s “Ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.”

By 1960, bread was sold in polyethylene bags instead of waxed paper, and the first pop top beverage cans appeared. That same year the fist disposable razor was sold, and within the next three years, aluminum would replace steel for beverage cans.

By 1965, the country was beginning to see signs that the rapid increase in the amount and new types of disposable items and packaging was creating a national problem. When Lyndon Johnson was president, Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 in an effort to study the problem to find better ways to deal with the mountains of trash that had begun to build. It would take another decade before comprehensive methods of dealing with all types of waste were addressed in national legislation.

Landfills were the method of choice for dealing with our trash, since in those early days, land was plentiful and cheap. National standards for controlling the sanitation of landfills to reduce smells and the spread of disease began to be introduced throughout the 1960s and 70s.

It has been said that one man’s garbage is another man’s trash. Certainly some people use the terms interchangeably, but in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, there was a difference.

The term “garbage” was saved for the leftovers and trimmings of food waste. In an era that had just begun accepting modern conveniences, many households bought family-sized cuts of meats that required preparation, thus producing bones, excess fat and cartilage that needed to be discarded, either before or after cooking.

“Trash,” on the other hand, was meant to designate disposable materials like tin cans, cellophane wrappers and cardboard boxes. Before the age of child-proof, security-locked, tightly-packaged products, things came simply wrapped. Cookies, for example, came packed in a clear cellophane wrapper with a single cardboard backing. In some cases, additional cardboard was added to form columns to protect and separate the baked goodies. Bread, such as the Wonder or Silvercup brands that Mister Boomer’s family frequently purchased, came in waxed paper wrappers prior to 1960, when plastic bags began to be used. At that point, an empty bread bag was rarely discarded. In the age before Ziploc bags, empty bread bags became the receptacles for all sorts of non-greasy leftovers, from muffins and rolls to cheeses and grains. Mister Boomer’s grandmother would go so far as to hand-wash the bags for reuse again and again.

For Mister Boomer, growing up in the 1950s and 60s meant the family had two cans for refuse; one was for “garbage” while the other was for “trash.” Both cans, however, were made of steel, with steel lids. The city had trucks pass down the block once a week to empty the cans that had to be placed curbside the night before. Mister Boomer and his brother would grab the cans by the handles, one boy on each side, to drag the cans from the backyard to the front curb. Two cans were usually sufficient for a week’s worth of family waste.

Since garbage bags had not yet found their way to his municipality, the cans themselves created a rather unpleasant situation in the warm summer air; cleaning them was required after emptying, at least once every two weeks. Being the males of the family, that job also fell to Mister Boomer and his brother. Wanting to dispatch the job in the quickest manner without getting their hands dirty, the method they chose all summer long was a power shot from the backyard garden hose.

The “trash” can could get by with a quick rinse. It was then placed upside down in the grass for the water to drip out and dry before the steel can could rust. The “garbage” can was another story. As a receptacle for the remains of family meals, it was often covered with hundreds of off-white, squirmy maggots. Mister Boomer was the younger of the two boys, and was therefore tasked with tipping the can on its side (with a swift kick) while Brother Boomer took aim and blasted the maggots with the hose. Inevitably, the can had rusted holes in the bottom since no lining existed to stop fluids from deteriorating the metal. Now those holes could be used to guide legions of maggots into the grass where they’d disappear, to return another day.

The grandparents of boomers had come from an era of reuse and recycle. During both World Wars, the population was asked to save items for the war effort, most notably metal, rubber, paper and animal fats that were to be used to lubricate mechanical parts. Their children, on the other hand, wanted to embrace wholeheartedly a New Age of Convenience that brought with it the disposables consequences that adult boomers are now facing. Throughout our boomer lives, we’ve seen the continued growth of disposable items and the creation of all sorts of new substances — some toxic — that now require even more attention for long-term disposal. We helped spur an environmental movement in the early 1970s that resulted in keenly raising the country’s awareness of waste, recycling and other environmental issues. Is it time for aging boomers to get off the bench and lend their voices to a new age of waste management awareness?

What did “trash” and “garbage” mean to you as a young boomer?