I remember, back in the early ’60s, puzzling with my mother over the fate of an empty aerosol spray can. A notice on the can said "Do not incinerate" and all our trash that didn’t get burned in the fireplace was stored up for the trip to the county incinerator. Somehow the compost pile—the other place we threw things—didn’t seem quite right either. Finally we packed it up with a note explaining our dilemma and sent it back to the manufacturers. It was a little act of defiance, and one of my earliest run-ins with the problem of trash.
Things have changed since then. We have a flourishing recycling program in our neighborhood. Two Saturday mornings a month, people converge from all over to a common point, laden with cardboard and plastic. Cars line up to unload stuffed trunks and back seats. Neighbors walk, pulling grocery carts and red wagons, trash bags of plastic bottles over their shoulders, cardboard balanced on their heads. It’s like a cultural rite, binding us together. But they take only two kinds of plastic. And the city takes only paper, glass, and cans. There is so much more.
So it was a thrill to find a place that recycled everything—seven grades of plastic, waxed cardboard orange juice and milk containers, Styrofoam and packing peanuts, batteries, clean rags, eyeglasses, electronics, aluminum foil. Seeing big bales of material there, saved from the trash pile, en route to being reused, was deeply satisfying.
I hadn’t realized how much my unwillingness to throw things out has to do with hating the idea of contributing to the volume of landfill. Once I discovered that somebody could actually do something useful with those old plastic containers and the worn-out clothes that I had saved for rags (enough to last a life-time or two), I was delighted to get rid of them—just as I had happily parted with piles of carefully saved scrap paper when it became recyclable. I came home from that wonderful center feeling like I’d solved a problem that had been nagging me on a low level for years. Finally I could do the right thing.
Yet this solution brought unexpected problems of its own. Where would we store seven different kinds of plastic? What about packaging that has no numbers? How can you be sure of the difference between #1, which crinkles but doesn’t tear; #3, which leaves a white line when folded; and #6, which crinkles and tears (unless it’s #6 Styrofoam, which is separate)? What if it kind of crinkles? The very next day we had Asian food and I was faced with Korean packaging that had no number and did not clearly fit any category. It just didn’t seem fair.
In our attempt to learn and organize (we recognize we’re on a steep learning curve), our kitchen is now covered with little signs—and I hate signs. Having rinsed our glass and cans for years, we now get to clean orange juice boxes, spaghetti sauce lids and Styrofoam cups as well. I found the plastic wrap from a package of vegan hot dogs in our new #1 bin. It has no number. Is it really #1? How much do I care? I look longingly at the trash can.
Now, with each piece of plastic that comes into our house calling out for cleaning, scrutiny, decision, and storage space, I feel the enormity of my collusion with this throwaway culture run amok. I didn’t ask for it. Never in my wildest dreams did I feel a need for seven different kinds of plastic—or packaging that defies access—but I am surrounded. I think of a group I know that invites people from wealthy nations to share with the poor—their mission is to ease the burdens not only of poverty but of materialism. My trip to the recycling center reminds me of the burden of stuff that I carry every day.
Knowing now that it’s possible, I will sort my plastic, rinse and flatten my orange juice containers, separate my metal and plastic lids, save my batteries and rags, and invite everyone around me to do the same. I know it matters. I know that consumers, defying market assumptions, have been the driving force behind our fledgling recycling industry. I’m glad to fish all that stuff out of the waste stream to keep it from going to the landfill—but I’m also sad. I’d so much rather be able to go upstream to where it all gets produced, and just turn off the switch. Then we could redesign the whole system, thinking together about what we really want and need, designing it to last, remembering that there’s no real "away" where we can throw things.