In the Boston suburb of Winchester, it’s a gorgeous New England morning. It snowed overnight, so everything is a pristine white, the sun is bright, the air is sparkly clean, and it is bitingly cold. Well below freezing, and just a few minutes outside has my poor exposed ears aching.

Even though it snowed all night, the roads have already been cleared. Several driveways too—those who have signed up for someone to clear them. But as we quickly find out, on a morning like this it is almost better to have uncleared or partially cleared snow on your driveway—the crumbly texture offering at least a semblance of a grip—than the thin and very slippery ice that remains after a plough has pushed the white stuff aside.

And on a morning like this, what’s first on the agenda? Of all things, a visit to the town dump.

Small towns around here are searching for innovative ways to deal with trash, and by that I mean every aspect of trash, from collecting it to disposing of it. Because every aspect of dealing with trash is expensive, this search is a critical one. Landfills get, well, filled; in any case, transporting the trash there is expensive. What would you do?

In Winchester, as in other suburban towns in the area, the citizens have decided to set up a do-it-yourself dump at one end of town. No pickup: they ask families to come there themselves to get rid of their household trash. So this chilly morning, that’s what my host in Winchester, Raj, and I set out to do with his carload of the week’s trash.

I’m half-expecting to arrive at a facility like you would find in urban India, possibly a vast expanse on which garbage is dumped, where flies and stray dogs and ragpickers—well, maybe not ragpickers—abound. Instead it’s a gated enclosure with a sign that tells us the hours it is open, and many more signs that tell us just what to do with our load.

Plastic things here in this large container that is busy compressing them even as we toss them in, but plastic bags there in that other bin. Paper here, but if you have books take them across the street to that small room where you can leave them for others to pick up if they want. Though don’t leave textbooks, those go over at that other place where schools can take a look. Glass in this large container. Organic waste a little further into the facility, on that conveyor belt that drops it into enormous containers that are periodically trucked away; but take yard waste—leaves, branches, and a vast pile of snowed-under Christmas trees fronted by a helpful sign that says “Christmas Trees”—across the road. Metal objects in this enclosure. Computer monitors and TV sets in that one. Still usable things you no longer need but somebody else might—strollers, desks, bikes, chairs—behind that low fence where several such are coated with snow. There are even large containers to take things you want to give to charity—like old clothes to the Salvation Army—with a note explaining how you can claim tax deductions.

On and on like this, all with only one or two people wandering about who look like employees. Raj waves to a few friends who are making the rounds as we are, asks one of their daughters how her dance class was. More cars are driving in all the time, even in this snowy weather. They bring stuff that Winchester’s citizens have themselves already segregated into easily managed categories, greeting each other cheerily as they put the stuff where it has to go.

All in all, it nearly takes my breath away, and believe me, that isn’t on account of the weather.

As we drive home afterwards, Raj says he sees it as an exercise that builds community feeling. Part of that is in just seeing your fellow citizens regularly, doing the same routine. Part of it is in coming to understand what happens to the trash you generate. Part of it is simply in the sense of common purpose, the feeling of searching together for ways to tackle a common problem, the knowledge that it is nobody else’s to tackle. All in it together, here in Winchester. And for those reasons, he has always felt this is the essence of small-town America, perhaps stretching back to the very founding of this country.

Now there are occasional proposals for Winchester to start home pickup of garbage, as a few other nearby towns do. That will be more convenient, though of course more expensive. But money is not really the reason it has not happened. It seems that this small town’s residents just appreciate the community feeling, the civic-mindedness of this effort. Certainly Raj sees it that way. Think of it: you get to know and appreciate your neighbors because you meet at the town dump, all getting rid of your trash with equal care and attention.

Of all people, I find myself thinking of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; and in particular, his emphasis on a village-based economy for India. This is hardly the place to examine it in more detail, not that I know much about it anyway. But after visiting the Winchester town dump, I wonder if I should think about this more carefully. Could it be that what Gandhi meant was less about the mechanics of agriculture and cottage industry, and more about this simple idea of building community? More about what it would it do for a country?

Think about it. You meet your neighbors at the town dump, all of you getting rid of your trash in much the same way. You meet each other over and over, week in and week out. How easy is it, then, to see each other as Gujarati or Bihari or Tamil or Maharashtrian; as Christian or Hindu or Parsi or Muslim; as Yadav or Bania or Kayastha or Mahar; as “sons of the soil” or “outsiders”; as “Mumbaikars” and “bhaiyas”? What sense do any of those labels make when all of you work side-by-side, when you see the other guy working just as hard as you, to address your common problems?

Could it be that Gandhi looked at it that way?

Questions worth asking, I think. What I’ve always found interesting about Gandhi is the way he thought about issues, the layers the man had. Here at the Winchester dump, I wonder if I have stumbled unwittingly upon one more of those layers.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

 

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