Remember when garbage was garbage, and you could throw trash away without sorting it into categories?
A routine has developed in my kitchen. I finish something contained in something else – a carton of orange juice, a can of soda, a glassine bag of heroin – and I go to throw out the container. I depress the garbage can pedal with my foot, the lid opens, and my hand with the trash is suspended in the air, about to drop its payload. Then my wife magically appears and says:
I take my foot off the pedal and snort. I enter the frigid garage and toss the carton/can/glassine bag on top of a pile of other containers that I had initially tried to throw in the regular garbage before I was caught.
In the nether-reaches of my mind I recall a simpler time. A slower time, a time when people had more time for their families. A time when people polluted more. A time when anything you did not want hanging around any longer could just be thrown away along with the chicken bones and report cards that alleged you were “not working up to potential.”
I credit the environmental movement with helping to save the planet, and making me at least consider not letting the faucet run while I’m brushing my teeth. But when I was a kid we just threw things away. Or we put them in boxes in the basement that my mother would periodically attempt to launch into space. We did not sort garbage. I did not sort my laundry, board games or feelings. Why would I sort my garbage?
And then, one day, a present was left on our doorstep: a beige plastic garbage can bearing a green “Recycle” emblem, illustrating that saving the planet began by arranging three arrows in the shape of a triangle. The new can was accompanied by a notice from the town, proclaiming that all paper garbage, and only paper garbage, had to be put in this special can. Paper garbage found with the regular garbage would be punished by summary execution and a $200 fine.
Separating was complicated. For “paper” included any paper product, even if it had once held something that was not paper, and had left its non-paper product smeared all over the inside of the otherwise recyclable container. So saving the planet became all about scraping the inside of take-home containers from restaurants.
The plastic can for paper garbage was only the beginning. It was followed by a series of blue bins. One for glass. One for aluminum. One for those tiny plastic round tables that go inside of pizza boxes. All garbage had to be separated into these containers. We became a recycling family. Kind of like the Partridge Family, except instead of riding around in a bus and singing songs, we stayed at home and classified our trash.
“Dad,” I said on a garbage night, holding up the packaging to an action figure, “is this paper or plastic?” He got up from his pile of aluminum cans, rubbed his eyes, scratched his head and consulted the Talmud, which was somewhat helpful, but only by analogy. We decided that I had to give up toys. I had more important things to do. Like sorting garbage.
The different classes of garbage got picked up on different days. Glass the third Tuesday of the month. Aluminum every other Wednesday and alternate Fridays. It was like a class schedule. But the greatest challenge was that paper garbage got picked up only once every two weeks. Approximately 97% of my family’s garbage was paper. During those two weeks we drowned in newspapers and magazines and flyers for missing cats.
One episode I will never forget. It was a cold, Thursday morning, and we were all snug in our beds, dreaming of sugar-plum fairies. Suddenly my father was shaking me awake in an obvious panic. I wondered if the house was on fire. “Mark, get up!” he said. “Today’s paper garbage day, and we forgot to put out the paper garbage!”
I wished the house had been on fire. Because then I could have stopped, dropped and rolled myself out the front door and gotten some breakfast or something. But putting out the paper garbage on such short notice – I could already hear the truck – was the suburban equivalent of the four-minute mile.
We scurried around the house in a frenzy, grabbing Pennysavers, junk mail, and cereal boxes each containing a teaspoon of cereal. We were like animals, acting by instinct. Getting that paper garbage out before the truck arrived was the key to our survival.
The truck was getting closer. We were running relays in our pyjamas, stuffing the paper garbage into the overflowing can. At one point I slipped and dropped a stack of unopened credit card offers behind a desk. I started to reach for them but my father put his hand on my shoulder. “Forget it, boy. We don’t have time.”
The truck was here. It was or now or in two weeks. The sanitation workers started affixing the crane to our can. My mental movie runs in slow motion. I see my father sprinting, his bathrobe flapping in the wind, our coupons flying. “Nooooooooo,” he screams as he dives for the curb, landing on our now empty can in the dust left by the departing truck.
Not that we minded any of this. We were, and are, proud to be stepping up to our responsibility to leave the planet in better shape than we found it. Or at least try to leave it in better shape than we found it. Or, if nothing else, think about trying to leave it in better shape than we found it. Because without a clean environment, we have nothing. And all we have to do is scrape the inside of a take-home container.