The author replaced his 96-gallon trash bin (far right) with a smaller 32-gallon model (far left) as a catalyst for a lifestyle change.

Photograph by Rev. G. Travis Norvell

An ode to a plastic urn: How a small trash can shapes beauty

Rev. G. Travis Norvell

October 25, 2019

A few years ago Tom, a Judson Church member, and I sat along the first base line of Target Field watching the Minnesota Twins play the Kansas City Royals. Around the fourth inning, we noted the excellent job of recycling program of the stadium. From there, we discussed composting, and then trash (at this time the Twins were losing 8-1). Tom asked if my family had the 96-gallon trash bin or the smaller 32-gallon model. (Reader, the slow and long game of baseball allows for a conversation to progress – and regress – up and down many avenues.). I informed Tom I had no idea that was even an option. Then Tom said the magic sentence, “And the smaller model is $4 cheaper per month.” As soon as the last out was made in the bottom of the ninth, I pedaled home and placed my order for the 32-gallon garbage bin.  

At first, I thought our small trash can would only translate into a monthly savings of $4. After our first week with the small bin, I thought I had made a terrible mistake—we had too much trash. I had to sneak two bags of trash into a neighbor’s bin. Over time, however, having a smaller garbage bin transformed the way my family and I lived. The small garbage bin became, in the words of Elvis Costello, “a brilliant mistake.” It inspired us to change our lifestyle and opened up new possibilities for local church mission.  

We examined our waste and determined we needed to do a better job of recycling, we needed to compost more, we needed to repair things rather than throw them away, and we needed to try and cut down on packaging when possible. So we learned how to do a better job recycling, we learned how to compost, we learned to shop more wisely for items that will last longer than a week, we learned how to ask for help to repair things, we learned how to shop for bulk food items (we place them in mason jars – hipsters have nothing on us), and we learned more about where our trash, recycling, and compost goes.

I once read the favorite quote of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was from Dostoyevsky, “Beauty will save the world.” I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but when I haul my small trash can out to the curb every other Tuesday, I think it is one of the most beautiful sights on the planet.

Nevertheless, I frequently think my family’s efforts at reducing our trash for the love of the planet is a futile manner. But the more we keep at it, the more we are finding others who are doing the same thing. We are finding others who inspire us, and we find others we are inspiring. 

The other day I decided to clear the front garden of the six-inches-thick, life-choking rocks the previous homeowner packed down. Rather than toss them into a dumpster, I placed a light-hearted notice on “at least 50 gallons of organic non-GMO gluten-free rock yours for the taking.” To my surprise, within an hour a family showed up and hauled the rock away.  As I helped them shovel the rock it into their hatchback, the mom said with a twinkle in her eye, “and it’s organic.” 

One morning Nancy Lu’s toaster broke. Rather than throw it away, she asked a friend to help her repair—thus birthing the fix-it clinic. Nancy took her experience and expanded it in a community center by inviting neighbors to bring their broken appliances, electronics, and gadgets and inviting technicians and shade tree mechanics to bring their tools and repair the items for free.  Now, once a month in various locations throughout Hennepin County, “fix-it” clinics take place and people form a line out the door waiting to get in. 

It is ironic that an institution that places such an emphasis on beauty from stained glass, to art, to music, is not front and center on the global environmental crisis. Here is an opportunity to take the lead on this issue. What if local churches put trash in their mission?

But where is the local church in this work? It is ironic that an institution that places such an emphasis on beauty from stained glass, to art, to music, is not front and center on the global environmental crisis. Here is an opportunity to take the lead on this issue. What if local churches put trash in their mission? Imagine a church sign that reads, “A Zero-Waste Congregation.”  Imagine a youth group going on a “mission trip” to the county landfill, or a local recycling center or composting facility, or a water treatment plant. Imagine one afternoon the diaconate walking around the neighborhood blessing recycling and composting bins, and rain gardens. Or imagine a Sunday School class adopting the storm drains and sidewalks around their church, promising to clean them and care for them.

The smaller plastic urn has changed the life of my family and offers an invitation to churches to think and act differently in our quest to care for, mend, and steward creation. Rather than being part of the problem, local communities of faith can be part of the solution by taking their trash seriously. 

In their book “God’s Good Earth: Praise and Prayer for Creation,” Anne and Jeffery Rowthorn share a piece of timeless wisdom attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila: “If we learn to love the earth, we will find labyrinths, gardens, fountains, and precious jewels! A whole new world will open itself to us. We will discover what it means to truly love.”[1] By focusing on reducing our trash, local churches can discover a new world and experience life abundant. 

The Rev. G. Travis Norvell is pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minn.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[1] “God’s Good Earth: Praise and Prayer for Creation,” compiled and edited by Anne and Jeffery Rowthorn. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2018, page 27.

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