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Winter ride | Justin Bondesen

Trash hauling on bikes? In the winter?! What is that like?...

Hat, neckwarmer, gloves.

Reflective vest and helmet.

I adjust my mirror.

I run through the ABCs- checking the air in my tires, my brakes, and chain.

The trailer is hitched to the bike.

I don my gloves.

It’s 9am on the nose, and the air is chilly, but not windy, luckily. “Be bold, start cold”, is the old saying, and I’m ready to ride. The studded tires hum on the pavement as I kick off, looking for cars, catching that sweet first push of the downhill driveway I live on. The trailer adds an extra kick of momentum that I’m now familiar with.

I’m rolling.

The first stop is up a short but steep hill, a good first push but not too hard with a trailer only laden with my house’s trash. A fastidious older woman, our neighbor is my first customer today, her bins of recycling are always neatly placed right on the corner of their driveway. I remember from a college anthropology class that the best way to learn about a people are from what they throw away. Here I find junk mail, frozen pizza boxes, and a minuscule amount of compost, since they have their own. I dump the recycling into the bins of my trailer, compressing the cardboard, keeping the tin cans separate from the number 2 plastic. All is well sorted and there’s not much for me to do besides make sure everything’s strapped down with the old bike tires we use as bungees. I stack the bins and compost bucket as neatly as I found them and push off again, the trailer just a bit heavier.

The turn onto Main street is a bit of a challenge on a busy morning. Oncoming traffic doesn’t quite know what to make of me, and sometimes treats me as a pedestrian, coming to a stop when they have the right of way. Driving on a car’s street feels vulnerable, exposed, but I trust in my hi-vis and our day-glo yellow sign.

Drivers crane their necks, in their cars, their trucks, tractor-trailers. It’s quite a shock to them to see the lanky young man on a bike in winter hauling an overloaded trailer. I get the occasional thumbs up, or a hastily produced cell phone to snap a shot.

On Main street the traffic tends to be fast, despite the many crosswalks and cars pulling in and out of roadside parking. As I take the lane, sometimes I feel the psychic pressure of the guy behind me, and sometimes I hear a specific revving of the engine...annoyance at being slowed down.

I smell the exhaust that surrounds me.

Some people pass in absurdly narrow lanes, only for me to later catch up with them at the next stop light. It’s a practice in taking up more space than I physically do, to flow with traffic that looks nothing like me, to be present and roll and not project what everyone thinks about this bike and this trailer and this peculiar way of moving things that I wish we were all capable of. It's not as hard as it looks.

I pull onto the sidewalk for the next two stops, and as the trailer gets fuller, I get more creative with where things go. This customer drinks lots of milk; there are many empty cartons of #2 plastic, High Density PolyEthelene, that will (supposedly) be melted down to make more. I do have to throw the lids away. Empty boxes, brown and white cardboard, tell me about these folk's amazon purchases. I try to witness without judgment, but can’t help but feeling like I have, as a trash hauler, a strangely intimate view into this person’s life. The bags of trash, somewhat heavy here, are securely lashed to the top of the bins with bungees. This is the last stop. The trailer is full.

The transfer station is nestled into a small Col next to the wastewater treatment ‘lagoons’ behind the high school. It is a soothing, pleasant downhill ride, with a trailer that at this point weighs much more than I do. A feeling of victory, accomplishment, accompanies this leg.

Again, I am flowing with traffic that looks nothing like me and is surprised by my presence, and now I see, in person, the ordinary folks who are just taking out the trash, and their wonder of my rig. The small talk, or short comments, are always enjoyable, and some people are excited to see what I’m doing and learn more. The transfer station staff know me by now, especially the ones stationed at the recycling area.

Small cars, medium Subarus, big trucks. All of us pull up to the hopper and pitch our plastic bags of trash in. I wonder sometimes, at this growing pile, the accumulation of our everyday shedding, plastic and wrappers and leftovers and the scraps of what we don’t want, sheathed in a durable, poisonous cloth and compressed, packed into a trailer and driven away.

Where does it go? What is its fate? How long will it persist?

I wonder if anyone wonders about it like I do, or are they just glad to be rid of it, forgetting about it as soon as the bag flies? Do they feel grief or guilt, thinking about the plastic and batteries and broken toys and molting of their possessions that will persist, maybe longer than they do, in the bones of the earth? Do they know that microplastics have permeated the world’s oceans? That their every breath is contaminated with the excreta of the machines we use to produce, transport and destroy this endless stream of Stuff?

At the recycling center, a beat up pickup, with veteran plates, idles. Its owner, his back bent over, walks up to me, probably because I’m wearing the hi-vis reflective vest, and asks me to help him sort his recycling; “I don’t know where any of this stuff goes,” he grumbles. At this point I’m getting pretty fast at sorting the white from brown cardboard (no pizza grease!), the opaque from the clear #2 HDPE (no lids!) and the aluminum from the tin cans. Tossing the glass jars into the bin where they sometimes land with a satisfying smash is the best part. Without thanks, he shuffles back into his truck and drives off, onto the next part of his day.

For most people, this dump run is another menial errand, a task to be over with, a thing to do on the way to something larger. For me, this place, and the forces that have led to its creation, are my livelihood, my Goliath, the manifestation of the darkness of human ingenuity and our insatiable desire to produce and consume. This trash doesn’t just go away, and every day that I am there, I want to look into the maw of that hopper, and feel afresh that grief, that shame, and the pile inside, and what it represents.

Justin Bondesen

Worker-owner/Rider for Spoke Folks

Founding member

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