A Look On The Lighter Side: Washing the trash in the 21st century

A Look On The Lighter Side: Washing the trash in the 21st century

“What do you think you’re doing?” my husband wanted to know. The note of outrage in his voice was quite unusual for him.

“I’m cleaning up after dinner, of course,” I replied calmly. “It happens from time to time. Why? Did you want to help?”

“I meant, what did you just do with that plastic container?”

“I threw it out, of course.” Again: “Why?”

“Because you didn’t check for its number first. How do you know that it doesn’t need to be recycled?”

I was tempted to admit that I don’t really care, but that would probably mark me as an international criminal. So I simply said, “I’ve got some problems with that.”

Let me count the ways. First of all, before you can recycle anything, the powers that be want it to be clean. Squeaky clean. So you have to wash it — by hand! I don’t even do that for my wedding china.

At least if you drop most of those containers in the sink while you’re cleaning them, they’re not likely to chip or break — and who cares if they do. But they’re so frustrating to have to clean. And some of them are downright impossible, like the brand of little yogurts I like, with a very narrow neck — must I really wrestle a sponge into that? But did you know, yogurt can actually spoil? And don’t get me started on peanut butter jars.

Besides — this is my second objection — it’s really a toss-up which to do first: clean the thing? Or look for its number?

It all somehow reminds me of long-ago days from high school, dress shopping with my mother. She always went first for the price tag while I looked first for the size. “It doesn’t matter what size it is,” she’d lecture me, “if the price isn’t right.”

“Well, if it isn’t the right size,” I’d lecture right back, “it doesn’t matter what it costs.”

Of course, sometimes — the few times I found something really flattering — we’d come to a compromise.

Which is not something you can do with recycling. “It’s a case of the chicken or the egg,” I ended up summarizing for my husband.

“More like a case of the egg carton or the rotisserie chicken container,” he replied, “both of which we should probably wash.”

Here’s what I really resent: having to wash all that stuff, just to end up tossing most of
it into the trash. Because every year our municipality re-negotiates a contract which seems very arbitrary about which numbers they will condescend to take. Right now they’re only taking ones and two, but it seems like only yesterday, it was limited to fives and sixes.

I can’t turn and change my whole washing-up ritual on a dime! For heaven’s sake, it took me years to stop putting my recycling can out on the wrong day.

I would even be fine with washing everything, if they would just make those numbers bigger and easier to find. Is it intentional cruelty, making them smaller and smaller as we age?

My time is valuable. So is my eyesight. I really don’t want to squander it, squinting at plastic containers through soap bubbles, only to find that what I thought was a “one” turns out to be a dead bug.

In fact, industry should really make those numbers readable — for machines. They can use bar codes or those unwieldy QR codes (they’ve got to be good for something). Or Braille, even. And sort it all out at some central facility. Waste the machines’ time instead of mine.

Or even — here’s a thought — give us little garbage cans for everything labeled “1” through “6,” along with a necessary “Miscellaneous.” I would be (more) willing to wash everything if I could then wheel it all straight to the curb, and let the town send it wherever it’s going. That way they can change what goes where as often as they like — every week if it suits them — without having to retrain all of us.

Of course, then I hear somebody on the radio bemoaning the fact that even if we all recycled perfectly, it would do nothing to bend the curve of Climate Change bearing down on us all.

Which is probably true. But if I no longer have to squint to see those damned numbers — that all by itself will be an improvement in the quality of my life. Doomed though it may be.

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