We arrived at Delaware’s Dewey Beach in early June with a week’s worth of clothes and a bucketful of forewarnings: predictions of cool temperatures and several days of drenching rain, plus our rental agent’s forecast of rowdy crowds engaged in that annual local ritual known as Senior Week.
Not on our list of planned activities: sorting through the previous tenants’ trash.
This is a tale of dumpster diving, resort-style, with a smidgen of environmental consciousness. Before you conclude that my actions must have been the result of sunstroke, let me confess that even my wife viewed my descent into waste management with some distaste — until she joined me about halfway through.
But that’s getting ahead of the story, which began with a gold sticky note inside the envelope we picked up at the rental office: “Mary Jo & Steve — Welcome to the beach! There are several bags of garbage by the front fence — sorry about this! Trash pickup is on Monday. Thanks for understanding. Angela.”
Several bags? No problem! “It’s nice of her to alert us,” I said, describing the note to my wife and our two traveling companions, “but it seems a bit unnecessary.”
A bit understated, as it turned out. Seventeen black plastic bags greeted us as we piled out of the car. “Must have been a big group,” I observed, mastering the obvious.
But the bags were neatly tied and stacked beside the 96-gallon bin provided by the private trash hauler, and they’d be gone by Monday morning. There was no evidence of snacking by local critters, so what did we care? The house was perfect, and we could hear the ocean waves beckoning just steps away. As Angela had said, “Welcome to the beach!”
Along the fence stood a second 96-gallon container for recycling. I peeked inside. Instead of the expected surfeit of empty beer cans (hey, this is Dewey, the capital of Bud Light), I saw a lone black bag.
Uh-oh. The trash rules on the rental envelope had clearly stated that tenants should “never put trash in the recycling container as it will not be picked up.” Action required! Reaching into the bin, I hefted the bag and jostled it. No clink of bottles or cans. I felt around the outside. Nothing. I grimaced. I’d need to open it. A quick look revealed a mix of dirty paper plates and a smattering of empty Coors Light cans. I closed it up and added the bag to its siblings against the fence.
“What a waste,” I muttered. “All this garbage, and not a single bit of recycling.” Well, as Angela had said, “Welcome to the beach!”
As we strolled along the sand later that afternoon, I argued silently with myself.
How yucky could it be, I wondered, to extract the recyclables from the bags?
No, no, I told myself. Don’t even think about going there.
Really, though, I replied. Even if I opened a bag, and the contents made my eyes go wide or my nose freak out, I could just close it up and move on. It would be easy, particularly if the Coors cans were early evidence of what I might find. Wasn’t it possible that several bags would be mostly empties from several nights of throwing down cold ones? Piece of cake!
The next afternoon, as we sat in the cool shade of the screened porch, I said casually to Mary Jo, “I think I’ll go through a few of those bags. Just a quick look to see whether it’s possible.”
“I might go for a walk on the beach,” she said, looking up from her book.
In case you’re wondering (of course you are!): I’m not an eco-vigilante. I don’t patrol my Baltimore neighborhood looking for recycling scofflaws. I do not reproach strangers who drop their empty plastic water bottles in the trash instead of the clearly marked recycling bin beside it. For me, recycling makes sense. It’s a part of our lives now, as routine as bringing in the mail.
I opened the first bag with trepidation rather than relish. It served up so many treasures that I just kept going. Half an hour later, still absorbed in her book, Mary Jo glanced over. I’d been tossing can after bottle into the recycling bin, and suddenly the noise of aluminum and glass had ceased. She saw me scribbling on a piece of paper.
“What are you doing?” she asked, suspiciously. “You’re not cataloguing the contents, are you?”
“Sort of,” I admitted. “It’s amazing.” I ticked off what I was finding.
“Lots of beer cans, of course. Cases of them. But also, nine still unopened cans. Mostly Coors Light.”
I couldn’t see her face, but I could sense the eye roll. Then, to my surprise, the screen door opened. She emerged into the sunlight.
Warily, she came over. “It’s not too bad,” I said, invitingly.
She bent down, untied a bag and said, “Wow!” I looked up. She was holding up a pristine, still sealed bag of Herr’s Crisp ’N Tasty Potato Chips. The 18-ounce “value size.”
“We could keep this,” she said.
“Yes, but we try not to eat potato chips,” I reminded her.
“Right,” she said.
We kept going. The list kept growing.
We speculated about our predecessors: If they liked to cook, they’d taken the week off. There was no evidence that they had made themselves a meal, while there were generous helpings of discarded packaging from the local fast-food restaurants. They didn’t eat much breakfast. No eggshells. No cereal boxes. No coffee grounds, only carryouts from Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks.
They preferred beer to other beverages. Two cases, 30 cans each, of Coors Light. Three cases, 12 cans each, of Corona Light. Two cases, 24 each, of Bud Light Lime.
But hard liquor had enjoyed a place at the table, too: a 750-ml bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee mash; 750 ml of Absolut Apeach vodka; 750 ml of Veil Citron vodka; 175 ml of Jose Cuervo ready-made margaritas; 175 ml of Rondiaz 93 Barbados rum; 175 ml of Poppin’ Original Vodka (“distilled 5 times”). No wine of any kind.
“Maybe,” I said, without much conviction, “they had a big party.”
They’d consumed more bottled water than soft drinks. The four empty quarts of Gatorade caused me to smile; I chose to believe that someone was rightly concerned about keeping hydrated while baking in the sun. But I was puzzled by the two empty quart bottles of Pedialyte — until an Internet search revealed that some over-imbibers swear by it as a hangover cure.
I was even more fascinated by what went unconsumed. Nine cans of Straw-Ber-Rita, a flavored margarita drink, unopened. Half a box of chocolate nut fudge, uneaten. A nearly full container of Sinex, a nasal decongestant.
I made excuses for their wastefulness. The fudge eater decided to go on a diet. The Sinex user left it by mistake in a medicine cabinet, and the cleaners threw it away. Three Straw-Ber-Rita drinkers cracked open a can each, regretted their impulsive buy and then had a lively discussion about whether it was worse to drink the rest or throw it out.
But how to explain the bright yellow, brand-new Kids Stuff water blaster? Or the bright orange, brand-new Ultimate Frisbee? Or the bright red seedless watermelon half, entombed in the original plastic wrap, with its original label: “America’s Choice Gold Kosher Cut Sdls Watermelon. Product of Mexico. 7.03 lb., .99/lb., $6.96.”
Surely the tenants had arrived by car. They’d thrown away two Styrofoam coolers that could have transported the watermelon. But if there wasn’t room in the trunk for a cooler, why leave behind the unopened cans of Coors Light? Those didn’t need refrigeration.
I began to imagine that they’d left in a hurry, the result of some emergency phone call. I knew it wasn’t true, but just in case, I hoped that everything was all right.
We pressed on, separating, sorting. After 90 minutes, we surveyed our handiwork: 17 bags reduced to 11. The recycling container filled and ready for the hauler, who was due the next day, according to a neighbor.
The trash hauler came on Monday. The mountain of bags went away. But no truck came for the recycling. The bin sat there all week, forlorn. We kept it out, just in case. No luck. We informed Angela, who was mystified. She politely refrained from raising an eyebrow at my reclamation project. I told her that one bag had contained only cans, as if the group had started to sort and then given up. She nodded. “It’s harder at the beach,” she said. “At home, you know the schedule. But here, it seems like many people just don’t want to bother.”
Stats on waste at Dewey aren’t easy to come by. The town itself offers no trash collection. But Angela said the private trash haulers have plenty of stories to tell. “You wouldn’t believe how much garbage is generated each week during the summer,” she said. I assured her that I had no trouble believing it.
As we pulled out of the driveway after a lovely week on a largely deserted beach (turns out that Senior Weekers mostly head to Ocean City), I thought about the next guests. They would arrive in a few hours. They might see our single bag of trash from the week and the entirely full recycling container. They might have a puzzled conversation about our consumption habits, wondering how we could drink so much and eat so little.
Welcome to the beach.
Luxenberg is a Washington Post associate editor.