Sunday, September 23, 2007

Trash the thought of going through my rubbish

22 Sep 2007, ST

By Andy Ho

I HAVE a daily habit of dumping yesterday's newspapers into my recycling bin which I used to keep in my front yard.

But I kept forgetting to wheel it out on alternate Fridays for SembEnviro workers to cart away my recyclables, so I recently decided to keep the bin kerbside instead.

Imagine my discomfiture soon afterwards when a karung guni man stopped by to go through my bin even as I was opening my gates to drive out. He glanced at me nonchalantly and then engaged me in ersatz banter, saying what was kerbside was public property, of course.

Why, a Katong man living at Marshall Road who parked his car right outside his own gates - where there were no double yellow lines - was ticketed, he let on. And he lost in court when he decided to fight the Urban Redevelopment Authority's $50 fine, eventually forking out some $10,000 in fines and lawyer fees, the scavenger smirked.

So there.

It seems somewhat surprising that the defence lawyers in that case did not raise the concept of curtilage at all, which is the land immediately surrounding and associated with the home. Because of the exalted status of the home in a law-governed system, however humble mine might be, I can reasonably expect to be let alone in my home - and its curtilage seen as an area intimately linked to my home, both physically and psychologically.

Conversely, when my neighbour parks his car so that it abuts into my curtilage, it hampers my ability to reverse my car to park it in my driveway. I have the right to complain though I choose to just fume - silently. In the metaphorical 'open fields' beyond the curtilage of my home, however, I cannot expect to be let alone.

But the kerb just outside my garden walls is arguably my curtilage. Is it so unreasonable then to expect some control over the garbage I might place there?

It almost seems silly to ask if I do renounce ownership of and control over that bag full of fruit rinds and coffee grinds just because I haul it kerbside every night. Or, do I particularly care whether the early morning banging of those SembWaste bins is caused by a disgruntled sanitation worker or a private investigator searching for incriminating evidence?

Actually we should care. After all, most bags of trash do contain some personal identifiers that reveal your eating habits, what magazines you read, what clubs you belong to, what credit cards you use, what shops you patronise, intimate details of your sexual practices, matters of personal hygiene, whom you speak to on the phone, what music you like - in short, details about your private life.

In fact, 'discarded DNA' in your dental floss - and sundry bodily discharges in old knickers, sanitary pads, condoms, and so on - can give away your genetic identity as well.

Note how we as a culture tend to believe that some intangible essence of an individual remains on his personal items - if the huge sums paid for handwritten letters of the famous are any indication. Or consider the obscene amounts of money paid for the costumes of a Lady Diana or movie stars, like the gown Fann Wong donned in her latest movie, Dance Of The Dragon, which is being auctioned off for charity for $80,000.

At any rate, the rest of us mortals want to keep our eating, reading and recreational habits as well as our social, political and sexual preferences private, so we convey our trash with all its personal details to the garbage collector whose function is supposedly to get them eliminated forever.

Thus the question comes down to this: Where do I have the right to be let alone? While my home and its curtilage is my castle, I have no alternative means of getting rid of my trash for I cannot, by law, burn it.

Regulated trash collection is necessary for the health and safety of society. Short of allowing the garbage to build up in my home, the law cannot leave me with no means of keeping the contents of my trash private yet require me to put it kerbside for collection. If too many of us don't comply with these regulations, we would not have clean and healthy neighbourhoods to live in.

Thus binning my bags of trash kerbside is a necessary step in complying with the law, which cannot also require me to participate at unreasonable personal costs, financial or psychological. The law's demands are such that I should be able to reasonably infer that no one other than trash collectors will handle my trash.

Moreover, when I place my trash kerbside, I don't abandon it - if only because I also don't abandon ownership of my letter or postcard or package that I drop into the mailbox to use the postal system to get them delivered to the addressee. Even though the item will be exposed to unknown numbers of postal workers along the way, it remains mine in transit until it reaches the intended receiver.

So also with my trash. In both instances I take pains to prevent others from looking in to the contents: I seal my letter and address it clearly on the outside. Likewise, I tie up my trash in opaque plastic bags - to ensure the garbage is not strewn all over my street but also to keep prying eyes away. Then I place it kerbside, from where I assume it will be thrown into the garbage truck, mixed with everyone else's trash and - without being rummaged through while in transit - taken to the incinerator to be burnt to a crisp, whereupon it loses its identity as mine.

Generally, most of us would be taken aback to find a neighbour searching through any trash we have placed outside in opaque trash bags carefully tied up with a tight knot. If you have not abandoned your trash to your neighbour, you certainly have not abandoned it to scavengers and snoops.

The fact that apartment dwellers throw their trash down chutes that lead into community dumpsters whereas single-family landed homes dispose of trash at the kerb makes no difference: The former also do not expose the contents of their trash to the public and thus have no greater reason than the latter to expect that their trash will be searched.

So don't trash the idea.

My trash remains mine until it gets reduced to ash.

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