It’s not that easy bein’ green. Kermit the Frog
How old am I?
I’m so old, I remember when being environmentally responsible—not that anyone called it that—simply meant not littering.
On road trips, we didn’t throw our orange peels out the car window. On walks, we didn’t throw our gum wrappers on the ground. At home, we didn’t throw our household waste to the winds. Instead, we crammed our garbage into grey metal cans that sat and stank in the back alley, notwithstanding the badly fitting lids pushed down on top: lids and cans both too misshapen from too many close encounters with the garbage truck to allow a really good fit.
Over the last forty years, though, that simple environmental commandment—Thou shalt not litter—has gradually been augmented by today’s rather more complex injunction: Thou shalt reduce, reuse and recycle. I’m all for it, especially the recycle part. Really, I am.
I consider myself a committed recycler. At the office, I retrieve sticky pop cans and juice bottles from the waste basket and deposit them in the correct recycling container. At home, I consult the municipal waste collection calendar for changes in the pick-up day for statutory holidays, and for designated yard-waste-collection days through the gardening season.
I consider myself an experienced recycler. At twenty, I was returning pop bottles to the depot in Edmonton. By thirty, my sorting skills met the demands of centralized recycling bins; by forty I had mastered curbside recycling. When I moved from Edmonton to Calgary at fifty, I faithfully took near empty cans of paint and various nasty chemicals (albeit licensed for household use) to the hazardous waste depot, diverting who knows what horrors from the landfill.
I consider myself a knowledgeable recycler. At home in Ottawa, I confidently manage the output of my house operations. I know what goes where at the curb: paper and cardboard in the black box; glass, milk cartons, and most plastic food containers in the blue box; and food waste, paper towels, icky used facial tissues, dryer lint, and the odd bits the vacuum collects in the green bin. I have kept pace with the shifting definition of actual garbage; these days in Ottawa it is mostly plastic bags, Styrofoam meat trays, non-food plastic, and any metal.
With all this commitment, experience and knowledge behind me, it is a rude surprise to find that just a few hours from home my recycling reflexes are flummoxed. En route from Ottawa to Toronto, I find that the waste categories at a roadside rest stop are Oddly Different.
Does the Plastic bin really want the plastic cutlery and the cellophane wrapper that protected it from casual contamination? At home, neither of these would be recyclable, yet there is no other plastic on my tray.
Does the Waste bin really want what’s left over from my quasi-quesadilla? At home, this would be Compostable, but there is no such category here.
Worse, looking at some of the fast-food detritus on my tray, I realize that I’m not even sure what it is. That almost translucent burrito wrapper: is it Paper, Plastic, or a biodegradable corn derivative? If I don’t know, does that make it Waste? Really?
My good intentions frustrated, I stand there, frustrated too. Really, really.
Nor is this variation an anomaly: no two recycling systems are the same, I swear. Ottawa’s composting technology prohibits disposable diapers: other Ontario municipalities with reportedly similar systems welcome them. Travelling just two hours straight west of my home takes me Up the Valley, where everything a household can reasonably produce can also be recycled: the very plastic bags and aluminum foil that the City of Ottawa rejects as having no commercial value. What’s with that? I mean, really.
Thou shalt not litter. It was simple enough.
Of course, simpler isn’t necessarily better: the days when littering was the focus and everything was good as long as garbage wasn’t strewn around the countryside, were also the days of thoughtlessly filling umpteen garbage cans every week, and dumping used solvent down the kitchen drain after cleaning paint brushes. I don’t long for those long gone, simpler days: really, I don’t.
But unnecessarily complex isn’t necessarily better either. Is it too much to ask that our municipalities, regions and provinces agree on what can be economically recycled, how to sort it, and what to call it? Is it? Really?