(Photo: Stocksy)

The Tyranny and Terror of Proper Recyling

I live in fear throughout the year.

I live in fear of trash. And trash receptacles. The refuse chute. Trash cans. Garbage bags. Those misleadingly cheery green and blue plastic bins with imprinted arrows, infinitely chasing each other in a relationship that will never be consummated, forever and ever and ever.

This phobia began when recycling laws went into effect in our hometown. My mother took the rules very seriously. We’d hear her asides about the trash habits of our neighbors, who, without a care in the world, would cavalierly fling empty pizza boxes into the bins marked “Glass Only.” There were only a half-dozen bins marked “Paper Only” waiting to accept their refuse, but no, these thoughtless yuppies tossed their artisan Otto’s Pizza boxes into the bins reserved for glass.

Every evening, for as long as I could remember, newspapers, plastic, boxes, cardboard and metal bric-a-brac were separated and dutifully carried to the green square cans labeled “Paper,” “Metal” or “Plastic” on the curb, first by my Father, and then, later, by us kids.

Mother would spy us, arms loaded with trash, plastic milk jugs crowning bags overflowing with the FT and LL Bean catalogs, on our way to the curb and yell, “There are people that pick those bottles for a living! Separate! I don’t care what other people are doing — we do the right thing in this house!”

She had incorrectly assumed that we would callously dump the whole lot into a “Paper Only” bin. We would not; we were simply trying to save ourselves multiple trips to the curb. Nevertheless, the guilt and indignation alone was enough to stop us on the stairwell to reorganize and re-stack, and then triple-check that each trash item went into the right receptacle — for the bottle pickers, for the environment, for our souls.

It’s a downer to see such a bag in plain view, but, on the other hand, I can’t just cavalierly throw magazines in the “regular” trash under the sink…people who do that go to hell.

Over time, Mother’s voice became my own. In my home now, I diligently separate, check and re-check the trash. No matter how tired I am, bottles are washed and placed into one box, plastic has its own sack and paper products are deposited in a brown bag so that every few days, a horrific, alternate-universe Christmas tree of junk is built near the door. It’s an eyesore for sure, but what’s the alternative? And yes, I devote brain cells to thinking about whether to start a new paper trash bag by the door. It’s a downer to see such a bag in plain view, but, on the other hand, I can’t just cavalierly throw magazines in the “regular” trash under the sink…people who do that go to hell.

Thinking about what trash goes where and how has become a burden. It is a drag. It is, I’m afraid, complex. For instance, what is dryer lint? Does it go with the paper? Paper is just rags and dust. Lint is dust. Or does lint go to the rubbish bin with peels and cores? It’s all so exhausting. Emotionally draining even. But I feel like a worse person when I have carelessly thrown a plastic container in the regular trash. At some point, days later, I jolt out of bed to fish the offending plastic, now covered in carrot peels, out of the regular trash and to place it in its rightful container. A sense of relief, however transient or small, ensues. I can sleep peacefully.

Last week, I just sat there staring at the empty cardboard toilet roll. My first thought was to slide it off the dispenser and throw it in the shiny metal bathroom can visible from my bathroom perch, but an internal voice chided, “You can’t just put that in the bathroom can! That goes into the paper bag!” I had to walk to the kitchen, rummage for a bag, separate the double grocery bag (yes, that’s a thing) and start a new waste for paper. That bag would then sit on the beautiful Burmese teak floor in the entry hall until it was full (because I already told you there’s no space under the sink). It was dejecting. If you care about aesthetics, it is psychologically traumatic to see a beautiful room with a paper trash bag sentry at the door. That expensive metal bathroom trash can? It has not been used since its purchase because there is nothing appropriate to go in there.

Now, I too notice that my neighbors have carelessly thrown bottles into the paper bin. I survey their refuse, judging (always judging) their worth as human beings based on their sorting. I shake my head when I see infractions, setting it right myself, praying for the bottle pickers while silently cursing the offenders and wondering about their parentage.

I’m not sure when trash became something to put actual thought into (the mid-90s?) but now, for me, its a daily pilgrimage, filled with emotion and reflection. But in the end, I feel good and smart grouping cotton balls in the “Paper” bags. Or knowing that most plastic (wrappers, bottles, containers) can be housed together. Yes, it is work to think, wash, prep, transfer, separate and check trash, but no matter how fleeting or small the victory, I always feel I’ve accomplished something as I lug those separated bags to the recycling room and deposit each bag into its correct bin.

At times, I now even fantasize about getting one of those cool little recycling centers at Home Depot. Sure, its odd I think of them as “cool.” Sure, they are size of a small car and I have no room for another thing like that in my home or life, but maybe someday. That thing would make my life less terrifying and a lot easier.

(Photo: Stocksy)

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