Throwing Away Some Ideas About Recycling [March 26 2018]
Following the phone’s directions, we hop off the bus at 23rd and look North to find that the road is interrupted. There’s a small but steep hill without sidewalk or road. We proceed with caution and find the road and sidewalk resuming a few hundred feet later. The kids didn’t want to make the trip with me and now they have ammunition to highlight my poor judgement. We walk several more blocks in what is definitely not a pedestrian friendly street. Some lack a sidewalk, with the space taken up for truck or car parking to commercial storage places.
We eventually reach the address of the recycling place but it’s not obvious where we should go. We try going inside first and the lady at the front desk directs us to the side of the building where there’s a truck with collected items. Two guys are busy unloading but one sees us and I tell them I have a few items to drop off: some light bulbs, some alkaline batteries, some smaller cell batteries and a few broken electronics. On seeing what isn’t a huge amount of them, he tells me that the fee is per pound with a minimum charge of 1 pound. He visibly expects me to give up on hearing this warning as I obviously have fractions of that but going back home with the items isn’t an option I’m willing to consider. I pay the fee but only after I help the guy calculate the total of what I owe him since he’s struggling with it.
I leave with a feeling of having done something that ordinary people like us rarely do. I also feel like I’ve overpaid for having good conscience but I also wonder if they actually do properly recycle the stuff. What if I’m paying them to carry the heavy burden of putting the toxicity back in the land? We head back home talking about how difficult recycling is and how important it is to try and avoid the problem by using less. I listen to myself and I feel bad that I’m withholding my opinion that “consuming less” isn’t really a realistic solution in the current world we live in. We need something more radical than “using less” but I don’t feel like this is the time to bring this up and I think it’s still important to try and reduce our consumption. I’m uncertain if the kids are understanding what I’m trying to teach but I do think that the experience of getting there will be something they remember. And maybe that’s enough.
We’ve been through another move recently. As with all of our previous moves, we went through a pruning phase and sorted out the junk from the keepers. And with each move, we get better at knowing what we need and it gets a little easier. That is, except for one thing: recycling the things that broke, wore out or have gone past their expiration date.
This is not a piece aiming to give resources about what to do and how to recycle everything. Solutions do exist for most things but they vary significantly depending on where you live. However, everywhere we’ve been to, there’s one commonality: recycling is rarely easy beyond the few accepted items at the city-level waste/recycling companies. In most cases, it’s really difficult and in some cases, it’s just impossible.
I suspect that this difficulty could be partly explained by our disconnect from where “things” come from. We now have many abstractions that make it easier to design, produce and sell items. People extract raw materials, others process them to enable their use in manufacturing, designers imagine and draw a product, parts are built according to specs by workers somewhere and, finally, assembly is probably handled by yet another group. I’m sure I’m forgetting steps or misrepresenting parts of the process but the idea should be obvious: by adopting those attractions, we’ve made the production of more complex technology possible while also removing ourselves from the source of the materials and processes involved in making stuff.
Regardless of whether or not there’s truth in this hypothesis, it’s hard to argue that recycling isn’t difficult. It’s very challenging for anyone to find the proper way to recycle stuff and sometimes the few alternatives are not easily accessible, especially for individuals. At the end of the day, most people are left with the easier and more realistic solution of disposing of waste irresponsibly and throwing it in the garbage. In doing so, we all share in our collective consciousness this pain of knowing we’ve caused harm. That pain is real and some of us have shut down and just skipped thinking of recycling and do a quick throw in the garbage and move on.
With that in mind, I think back of basketry or spoon making classes where we gather vine or fallen maple branches. The end result is not very far from its natural state and it’s therefore easy and satisfying to think of its end of life: just return it to the place it came from to resume its lifecycle. It many situations, this process wouldn’t even be a conscious one: a basket might start rotting but still be useable. From the moment of its creation (or, arguable, the moment of harvest), it gradually decays until it reaches a breaking point and falls on the ground it came from. In the case of woody materials, it can serve as fuel for a fire where this can become a more conscious celebration of the cycles of life. In a way, the dreadful quest for figuring out a respectful way to dispose of something becomes a celebration of life.
Looking back on what we know of human history, we can also make an interesting observation: the remnants we find of previous cultures are most of the time fairly recent. For the vast majority of it, we find proof of humans living without leaving traces behind. To me, this seems like hints and maybe even evidence that this period in human history was lived in a sustainable and harmonious way with the Earth where tools would gracefully degrade and feed in to the next cycle of life.