“Use it up, wear it out…” by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Today I want to salute a venerable Maine tradition. It is a recreation area, a standard-bearer for environmentalism, a community center, and a boon to the pocketbooks of Mainers: the town dump.

I know. If you live in a big city or one of those smooth, planned-development suburbs, right now you’re shaking your head. You don’t have dumps. You have floating garbage barges and large trucks that whisk your trash off to God-knows-where (hopefully a garbage-to-power incinerator plant like we have here in southern Maine.) But if you live in a small town or in the country, you’re nodding in agreement with me. There’s not much more fun than a visit to the dump.

There are two kinds of town recycling centers here in Maine; the old-fashioned, piles of detritus dump, and the new, separate-your-glass-and-your-no.-two-plastics transfer station. The former has long been a source of car parts, swing tires, odd lots of lumber, and, for the more adventurous dump miners, the highly desirable “good stuff.” A box of mason jars complete with caps and rings, old books, a stuffed chair with just one stain on it – and hey, if you drape one of Grandma’s afghan’s over it, no one will see.

The old-fashioned dump was also a center of recreation. My husband has fond memories of shooting parties at the dump: just him and his buddies, their .22s and a bottle of cheap schnapps. If you were a young person looking for a place to have some private time with your sweetheart, most dumps had a couple of old sofas dragged off to the side. Not as scenic as the quarry, but the surface was a lot softer.

The modern transfer station is cleaned up, drive-through, and has all the “good stuff” already pulled out for your browsing pleasure. Most of them have some variation of what’s called the Swap Shop in my town: a place where you can drop off anything you no longer want to have in your home, so long as it’s (relatively) clean and (conceivable) usable. It’s like Goodwill, with less organization and no prices. (Although I have heard of one area transfer station that charges townspeople for taking away stuff. I deplore this un-Maine stance and encourage the voters of that misguided municipality to call their selectmen and protest.)

At the transfer station, you can find anything and everything, including major appliances, paint, kitchen ware, luggage, and those strange pictures made with nails and thread that your mother had on the den wall in 1970. And since the recession, the number of Mainers taking advantage of the dump’s low, low prices and unbeatable return policy has shot up. I knew the transfer station had arrived when the New York Times home section devoted a story and slideshow to a Maine couple decorating their house with dump finds.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. It’s an old New England rhyme that encapsulates our relationship to material goods. In the rest of the country, “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a hot slogan. Here in Maine, it’s just another day at the dump.

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6 Responses to “Use it up, wear it out…” by Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Ah, the dump. My car sports its dump sticker on the driver’s side window with pride.

    More than once my husband and I have hauled something from our big, chock-a-block full house in Maine to the dump, only to find my mother-in-law in our driveway a couple of days later saying proudly, “You wouldn’t believe what I picked up at the dump. And it matches the one we already have!”

  2. Lea Wait says:

    I remember pleading to go to the Boothbay Dump when I was a child because the garbage there was always covered by gulls. I loved to see them circling our car, waiting to see if we’d brought anything for dinner. If you got out, (something my mother seriously frowned on,) you could walk up to them, and they’d scream at you. I loved it! Jamie Wyeth’s paintings come close to depictions of those gulls. When I moved to Maine full time in the 90’s and cleaned out my barn I sorted through several cartons (yup; cartons) of saved nails and screws. Now, I wouldn’t throw out a good nail or screw. Or an 18th or 19th century one. (I found both.) But rusty 20th century nails? I figured they were pretty useless. So I dropped them off at the dump. Within a few minutes several men were sorting through them, finding treasures. The dump is sort of like the antiques business. There’s the right customer for everything. You just have to find him …. And he might well be at the dump.

  3. One of the best depictions of an old time Maine dump is in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. The rats are real. The vampires probably not so much. Although you never know . . .

  4. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Great topic, Julia!

    I love going to the dump (okaaay, transfer station.)

    We had curbside pickup during the end of my years on Peaks but there was still opportunity for dump drop off. I tended to go over there every weekend, just to see who I could see and what was what. Lotta good stuff at an island dump, especially at the beginning and end of summer.

    Now that we live on the mainland (and suburbia at that) actual trips to the dump are pretty much confined to yard-waste hauls, meaning I don’t bring stuff home anymore. We have plenty of branches/brush/leaves in our own yard.

    Of course the corollary to to dump picking is the curbside piles of lumber, bricks and furniture with a hand-scrawled sign: “Free!”

  5. Deanna says:

    I am in MA not ME, but we have a swap shed too…love it!

  6. For many years in Camden we had a fashion show with clothes salvaged from the dump. Carol Lambert (Sea Glass Chronicles) organized the events and they were a blast! Proceeds went to a local charity and it was held at the Samoset resort. Very chi chi! I modeled a Parisian designed gown one year with a white ermine fur that was sublime. These were items of clothing FROM THE DUMP! Author Kate Braestrup bought the fur. I’m still kicking myself!

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