Remember When Garbage Was Garbage?

Remember when garbage was garbage, and you could throw trash away without sorting it into categories?

I do.

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:

“Wait. Recycle.”

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.

0 thoughts on “Remember When Garbage Was Garbage?

  1. Nice article. Stay away from the heroine (geez). Yes, we used to chuck everything into the landfill, but now we have these crazy non-biodegradable polymers that stay around forever. Wasn’t so bad chucking the glass and metal. The nature of our waste (sounds gross) has changed, like the nature of our food, has changed into something monstrous in the last 50 or 60 years. Hard to believe how much damage has occurred just in my lifetime. If we could just go back.

  2. your town or the people your town contracted made it way too complicated, Mark. We had one bin for all recycling and it got taken once a week, but newspapers/paper products just got set out by themselves as part of the recycling, but not in the recycling containers.

    I’d already planned a recycling/repurposing video blog for later today. Now I know to ping you.

      1. If they made it less complicated (like Baldwin) plastics separate, cans and glass together every Monday, someone would still have to sort it, but the trade off would be paying higher taxes. Keep in mind the taxes here are $10k/year.

  3. Ah, yes. My husband and I recycle due to crushing ecological guilt(thankfully we don’t have to sort out anything but glass), but we always forget to take our bin outside on Sunday nights. Our recycling bin has now turned into a recycling closet.

  4. That sounds massively hectic! Asian countries have to get on to sorting our garbage out like this–but then again in the grand scheme of things we have other ‘more important’ issues to address. Not that it all isn’t interrelated or anything *rolls eyes*. Anyways, easy to imagine all of the running about, robes flapping in the wind and then of course, the slow motion diving. Funny post–the laughter was a great start to my morning!

  5. Great article! At one point I forgot that I was reading about garbage, and thought that aliens must be invading the planet. You got me hyped about an issue that has never really been an issue to me. I was born into the age of recycling (or at least adopted at an early age), so none of its fussy rules bothered me much. Anyways, I enjoyed reading this! As always, can’t wait for the next. : )

  6. sorting is not that difficult…mostly don’t care about ecology, about Earth’s life…what is going to be in 50 years? We will live and see and we will have someone to blame… but what is that going to do…fix everything? Now we are doing the same, blaming others that they are not doing anything! The result…Earth is still going down. Money and fame are more important than anything…i would like what is money going to solve when one will not be able to breathe or to stay out in the sun…

  7. Hey Mark 🙂 I just wanted you to know that I posted a link to your Blog on both my Poetry blog “”, and my Writing Blog “”

  8. I thought that recycling was just a scam perpetrated by the mafia to get more sanitation contracts. Once, while visiting my Grandparents, I accidentally saw a 20-20 segment about how all of the recycling cans are emptied into the same place as the “regular” trash. I’m sure that the interweb will verify this.

    1. I’m not finding that 20-20 segment on the internet. Would be curious to see it. I’m pretty sure cans the city picks up for recycling do not go to the dump. Like, 100% sure.

    1. Thanks for digging up all those links, Adam. Very interesting. I guess I cannot claim all recycling services everywhere do their job (!) The article about non-recyclable plastics contaminating the recyclable waste brings up an important point. Plastics with food waste cannot be recycled. And very often, especially if you’ve heated food in the plastic, you can’t get it clean enough to recycle. Also, the recycle symbol on a plastic container does not mean your city recycles it, or even that it can be recycled. It simply identifies the type of plastic. People have no idea about this, in my experience. And why would they? They see the recycle symbol and justifiably think they means it’s recyclable.
      And even IF a plastic container is recyclable AND clean AND your city has a recycling program for that type of plastic – it won’t be refashioned into a new container. It will go into a secondary product once, and never be recycled again. So at BEST, recycling plastic gives it one more use before the landfill.

  9. The strange thing is – I have grown up with this stuff. Paper there, food there (or I think we started that in my area when I was a kid though), the rest there.
    And then glass and cans and batteries and .. sigh. More and more. We learned it and practised it at school.

    I still can’t get my head around it. F* it I say, and chuck everything in a bag and throw it out somedays.

    But my dad!! My 60 year old dad. He sorts EVERYTHING. Even stuff that I don’t think needs to be sorted. What was his explanation again, to having two bags with similar trash? He started one but forgot about it, and started on another bag? Weirdo.

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