Carolyn Huynh. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Huynh.

My parents are hoarders. Well, in the Vietnamese sense of hoarding anyways. Nothing gets tossed. Cluttered corners are the norm. Stacked to-go containers with mis-matched lids. Stockpiled blocks of government cheese that my grandmother acquired through welfare food stamps. It took me almost a decade to realize that their hoarding was just the result of trauma from the Vietnam War. Anything and everything could be of use. Even if that day has a 101% chance of never coming, they swear on their lives that the bag of rubber bands they collected from newspapers will be useful. One day.

As an adult, my obsession with minimalism became a by-product of their trauma. My sad attempts of being sustainable correlates with the Instagram millennial lifestyle. The less I buy, the less trash I accumulate. Tote bags at the grocery store, vintage furniture, slow fashion (thrift only). I even have a rabbit I use as a sentient compost bin because I liked the idea of feeding him the ends of my vegetables. I’d either donate, sell, or gift on “Buy Nothing” community forums in my Capitol Hill neighborhood.

We’re now a quarter into our unholy year of 2020. A year that seems to have slipped through our fingers like sand as we watch from our creaking rocking chairs. Those that have the privilege to shelter in place safely and work from home, are able to do our part to help flatten the curve. A result of being forced to adapt quickly to this new normal is that we can now see a tangible ecological footprint that was mostly invisible to us. We’ve been sheltered by going out to eat (restaurants take care of the compost, the trash), shopping in person versus delivery (no ridiculous oversized cardboard boxes), etc. A strange side effect is that while we are reducing our CO2 carbon emission from cutting our commute times, I’ve noticed that the trash has been piling up from our home energy use. 

And Seattle, it is really piling up. 

Overflowing recycle bins at an apartment in Seattle. Photo by Erin Haick.

Some of my childhood triggers have been flared reading the news and watching people panic bulk buy. Imagine the clutter. The unnecessary stockpiling. The inability to not let go — even if it defies all logic. My parents had trauma from the war from losing everything they owned, and as survivors of that, they didn’t want to let anything go ever again. COVID-19 has generated a similar mindset in people: buy it all at once because you might never see it again. Or for the more privileged set: I’m bored, let’s shop. (I am most guilty of this one.) 

While there are those that laugh at the mob mentality of hoarding toilet paper, I’ve noticed that some of the same people that balk are the ones ordering the fancy delivery meals, Whole Foods deliveries or shopping online to kill time. I am guilty of all three things, and possibly in 3x the amount since the shelter in place order has been instilled. My feeble millennial attempts at sustainability have been exposed, and so have everyone else’s. My apartment building’s trash bins have been flooding with cardboard boxes, delivery containers and early spring-cleaning tosses from residents who are unable to donate to Goodwill at this time. While CO2 emissions have gone down, we’ve clearly offset any iota of good that could possibly come out of this horrible time.

Overflowing trash bins outside an apartment in Seattle. Photo by Carolyn Huynh.

I obviously cannot cure COVID-19 or fix the global climate crisis. What I can point out from my armchair philosophizing is that Seattle was the furthest along in the country in attempting to get ahead of the curve. That means we can also be ahead in preparing to come back when this pandemic is over. For those that are privileged enough to weather this storm, let’s try to keep this city as evergreen as possible. I’m already afraid to come back to a city whose culture has been forever changed. There will be those that have yet to understand the trauma that might form from this historical moment. That trauma may not translate to something as harmless as stockpiles of government cheese, but could potentially be something much worse if we are not once again careful about heeding warning signs. The repeat warning sign I see daily from my ivory tower window the past few weeks, is the trash piling up in my garbage bins. This visual only adds to the collective anxiety I’ve been feeling from within my community.

I know it’s been a hard five weeks. Months? Years? This is Seattle after all, and we’re infamous for our inability to be direct. So if you still haven’t managed to make eye contact with your neighbor after three years, then at least try to minimize the trash so we have a semblance of a city to rebuild after this is all over. I’ll start first.

Carolyn Huynh is a product designer in the cloud security space and a MFA student at the University of Washington Bothell. Tweet her at @carehuynh to chat about cybersecurity, UX, and the latest book you’re reading.

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