The biggest excitement in my life for the past week has been hearing the Bulky Trash people pick up my pile of Things. Last Monday, at 7:02 am, after the morning compost truck had banged its way along our suburban street, I heard the sound of backing up. I was, in fact, waiting for it; had, in fact, already gone out to examine the pile we had sneaked out there after dark on Sunday night to see if it was still humbly awaiting pick-up. (It was.)
Oh beautiful Bulky Trash truck, I was never so glad to see you! I heard the discussions outside in between sounds of metal scraping on concrete; I heard dragging; I heard crunching. Then, the Doppler effect of that engine driving away, and I dared to peek. All gone! All gone! I spent the rest of the day humming to myself and doing a little ceremony and dance, Bulky Trash! Bulky Trash! Everybody do the Bulk-y TRASH! Do you think me simple for getting so excited about trash? Definitely. To paraphrase Jango Fett, I am a simple person just trying to make my way through the universe.
Our Education Regarding Trash
We have come a long way just in my lifetime dealing with the Things we acquire and then jettison. Sesame Street many moons ago had a video with a little song, What about garbage? Where’s it go?Where’s it go-o-o-o? as they showed smiling men putting the trash in the trucks, and the trucks putting it on the barges, and off the barges sailed into the sunset….. Well… not exactly, right?
We learned when we got older and put away childish things that the trash got dumped in the ocean. Or landfills which filled up, begatting new landfills and more and more, until we realized we were going to run out of land for landfills. Voila! Earth Day and the 1970s and recycling, first a few hippies dragging trash bags full of beer cans, then a whole industry, and finally a regulatory imperative. Fast cut to 2020 where we have tri-partite trash, multi-colored cans, and 79% of our county trash avoids landfills.
But it’s not so easy, is it? Even though the Bay Area has some of the highest recycling rates in the country, even San Francisco has had to extend its Zero Waste goal another ten years, stuck at 89% because of leather, rubber, flame retardants. Or, as I found out, because nobody wants a 20-year-old metal bunk bed. We already separate out all the organics, cans, bottles, foil, paper, cardboard, egg crates, hard-molded plastic, yet there’s still cellophane. There are still Cheetos bags. (Don’t judge.)
The rest of the country stands at a paltry 35%, which I know, because everywhere else I go doesn’t have a third green bin or even sometimes a second blue bin, and I am appalled at the airport in that other state, having to put an aluminum can in next to the apple core and crumpled Cheetos bag–what is this, 1992? Yet, if Alameda County can’t figure it out, how can I expect the rest of the country to trust in the blue and green bins? As it turns out, you apparently need more than a graduate degree just to figure out where to put the trash, for several reasons.
Every household has one. Even people in states who sneer at us re-using our straws still know enough to separate out bottles and cans. Have you ever been confronted by someone holding a piece of trash, asking after its ownership, so that they can set you right? My spouse is the vigilant one who pulls things out of the wrong bin, and the two of us have had years–decades, really–to discuss who is right about Where Things Go. I have learned to defer. Of course, since I actually take out the trash, I can always adjust as needed. She was right about the Campbell’s Soup at Hands, which seemed like they ought to be recyclable, but due to their styrofoam coating were, sadly, not. Think I’m overestimating this analysis? Look at this note I just found from a gentleman who frets about the confusion over the Soup at Hands lid:
I’ve been in correspondence with Campbell’s Soup about the plastic lids on their microwavable soups… the lids have no marking. Here’s what they told me: “The lid is #5 plastic (polypropylene). While some municipalities do accept #5 plastics for recycling, most do not.”… my gut tells me there is a creative solution lurking behind this problem. I get the impression the engineers at Campbell’s could be more creative/innovative/resourceful in solving this issue… however Campbell’s is reluctant to place the recycle logo on the lids as they fear it would be perceived as “greenwashing.”Post on www.greenprackage.com by Mousejockey, Albany, NY
Ah, greenwashing, a new word for the dictionary! Next to Recycle Nazi or Recycle Hall Monitor or whatever we want to call the person who tells US how we’re doing it wrong, as opposed to when we helpfully point out to the other people the error of their ways. Yet, if we can’t even get a plastic #5 right, how is there hope?
Consider also, for example, the plastic tops atop the plastic bottles. The internet told you that in 2002, they should be re-attached to the bottles. However, in 2012, no-no! They are a different kind of plastic. 2019? Recology in San Francisco had machinery that would pull them out, so they wanted them on. Other cities, other sites, wanted them off. Cap on? Cap off? I still don’t know. This I do know for sure: Wash the bottle out to eliminate any remaining liquid. This, because China.
National Sword Punctures our Recycling Dreams
We were all well on our way to recycling all our trash so easily back in 2016. Reminds me of the Sesame Street song days, only the airplanes full of recycling were off to China, which we thought was happily taking on all our waste and doing who knows what with it. Drowning in it, apparently, as China in 2017 passed the National Sword Policy. I read at the time that it was a reaction to threatened tariffs or anger at American journalists, criticizing their pollution level, but that was oversimplifying. The fact is that the West had gotten a bit lazy about recycling, especially in mixing paper and bottles together, which contaminated what was recycled:
China’s action came after many recycling programs had transitioned from requiring consumers to separate paper, plastics, cans, and bottles to today’s more common “single stream,” where it all goes into the same blue bin. As a result, contamination from food and waste has risen, leaving significant amounts unusable.Wired, “The World’s Recycling is in Chaos”
What China did, really, was highlight how far we still have to go for things that we recycle to be recycled. China had been accepting some 40% of U.S. recycling but dropped their contamination standard to a strict 0.5 percent, while contamination rates from the West had been as high as 25%. This caused municipalities to start sending recycling back to landfills and closed down local recycling centers because the cost to clean the waste outstripped the value for the raw materials. Back to the drawing board.
At the very least, what gets put into recycling must be cleaner and drier in order for it actually to be reused. Juice-covered paper doesn’t save trees. It’s also vital not to put recyclables into plastic bags, then into the bin. The plastic bags get knotted in the machines. Still, there are different rules by municipality for what is accepted. Different states, different cities have different dances. I really found this out trying to crack the Compost Conundrum.
The Raging Debate over Milk Cartons
Our local waste collectors went to the third compost bin almost twenty years ago. Put all the food part of your food into the green bin, then throw in some yard waste, plus some rosemary clippings to reduce the odors. It’s great! The problem has been how to collect the scraps. We were given a green-lidded pail to sit on the kitchen counter. Quickly, we found the pail became moldy and attracted pests; we switched to a smaller and more decorative metal pail. Same outcome. Finally, we decided to put the waste inside paper cups, newspapers, takeout containers, and milk cartons.
That worked beautifully–we use up about just enough cartons during the week to contain our banana peels–the universe was in balance! But, wait! I read in December with chagrin that milk cartons and takeout containers have a plastic coating. Not allowed in composting!
Some colleagues recommended compostable bags as a solution. Put the waste in the bag, no critters, no mold in the container, problem solved. Except there’s something about me that balks at buying a thing to put other things in when they’re organic. I already go to such length to avoid paying the 10cents for paper bags just to hold our Cheetos bags and cellophane that I will choose something different for lunch just because I know it will be put in a free paper bag large enough for my trash. So, no go on buying compostable bags.
Last week, after a lengthy family seminar on the topic, we opted for plastic takeout containers that hold hot foods. While these are recyclable, we like to reuse them, so we have a stack. Being shallow, we thought them less likely to attract mold and easier to wash out. Two days in, I discovered that they don’t dry easily, so the organic waste would stick to the bottom and not dump out. That required washing, scraping, and lot more cleaning than I was bargaining for. I want my compostable containers back!
Miracle of miracles– I discovered yesterday that our municipal sanitary district still believes in milk cartons–yea, goes so far as to show it in use on their website! Takeout containers and paper cups have a plastic coating, but milk cartons are wax-coated. That picture was from in 2014, but the website is up-to-date, so doesn’t that mean it’s valid? It must be! I did reach out to them via email, hoping there might actually be a human being behind the website who could give me a straight answer. Yesenia told me I had to provide my account number in order for a response, so now I have to find that. In the meantime, milk cartons are back in business until I’m told otherwise.
Continuing to Meditate over Trash
I don’t even want to get into how donating clothing has become utterly complicated. We think we can reuse and recycle, but it’s just not so easy. We’ve been sending all our crappy t-shirts to Kenya, and though it’s provided jobs for them to sort used clothing, they want us to stop. Think I’m kidding? See this. Ripped up T-shirts make perfect dusting rags anyway.
Some argue that we should buy things without packaging. Rip off all the packaging in the store and leave it there to teach the grocery people a lesson! OK and who cleans that up? We are overflowing from the tyranny of things; we acquired them so we have to handle them gracefully.
I will continue my quest to understand the mysteries and vagaries of Recycling and Composing. I appreciate you if you have an organic garden for your scraps. Our hillside is full pests; I watched them devour the neighbor’s elaborately created tomato plant experiment.
I will perform penance for the Bulky Trash. Mea culpa. I am sorry that the metal-framed backyard chairs shredded their textile covering, which I am incapable of repairing. I am sorry that we had to put my son’s 20-year old metal bunk bed into trash. I heartily applaud the vast network of people you know that includes someone who would take a used bunk bed. After days on Craigslist, NextDoor, and emailing a dozen charitable sites who take beds only if they aren’t metal, we had no such luck. At least we tried.
There was a little elation. On the top of the Bulky Trash, we had placed a hard-shell cartop carrier, acquired in 2001 with the hopes of deployment in frequent cross-country drives. It turned out to be hard to use, and instead spent the last 19 years propped against the house and falling over in every large wind, about once a month. Thrilled to see it go, but hey! We think that someone may have taken it during the night, as it was no longer on the pile being debated at the 7:02 am Bulky Trash consultation. I hope someone did and wish them well!
A Single Triumph! Will Lead to More
Meanwhile, I count this as a triumph. Our green-topped compost pail, the one that attracted mold on the kitchen counter, has been placed in the downstairs shower. I have started showering occasionally there, which does require running up and downstairs with a towel. However, this allows collection of gray water, which can be tossed outside on our drought-stricken plants.
I will take my trash triumphs where I can find them!