Bein’ Green

Different protocols for recycling drive me crazy. OK, crazier.


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?

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18 Comments

  1. Jim Robertson

    Yes, it would be great if all got together on what is acceptable in each bin. It would be even greater if all fast (and slow) food restaurants had recycling too…..

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – The bins giving me fits in this case were for the entire food fair at the rest stop. I’m not in a Timmy’s very often, but was a few weeks ago and noted that they had recycling – with their own (uniquely) defined categories, of course! Arggh. For short trips the answer is to take my own food – but I do long for the day when this will all be settled.

    1. Nay-nay!
      My mother was an avid empty pop can collector and kept a large plastic bag in the car for that purpose. One night on the way into a restaurant, she found three cans in the parking lot and popped them in. Being old, she didn’t return the bag to the trunk, but took it into the restaurant and put it beside her on the banquette seat. They ordered dinner — one meal, splitting it, of course as in California restaurant meals are FAR too big, the steaks hang over the sides of the plates for goodness sake!
      When they went up to pay at the cash, a man came rushing over and said, “Here, let me pay for your meal,” thinking they were homeless and/or poor. And my father let him!

      1. Isabel Gibson

        Barbara – Good man, your father! Some things are just too hard to explain. Better to let him pay – he’d feel good for a week, I bet.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Gary – I like it! But it’s sure hard to know what will be ‘good’ even 50 years from now. Up North, people used to dispose of old equipment by driving it out on the ice and letting the spring melt take care of it – and they thought nothing of it. And they bulldozed old oil drums into the nearest coulee or shallow ravine – just getting it out of view. I wonder whether they would have seen any of that in a different light, using your maxim, or whether they couldn’t see it any differently from where they were standing.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Mary – Yes. I remember reading years ago (OK, maybe decades) that where we had lots of variation in our envelope sizes (and no one to even think about setting standards, much less enforcing them), Germany had limited envelopes to a handful of sizes, with everything else prohibited. Something to do with automatic sorting machines? Not sure how they handled that pesky foreign-origin mail. Anyway, it seems to me that some things aren’t worth the messiness of local autonomy… and that will be fine as long as I get to decide which things those are.

      1. Also, in Germany, over-packaging was solved this way: People undid the article and left the package material on the counter, making the store pay for its disposal. Didn’t take long for the store to force manufacturers to get the message.

        Of course, German thinking admires this sort of rebellion. Would a Canadian make such a fuss in public, or such a mess?

        1. Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – Odd, I don’t think of the German people as rebellious. Australians, maybe. Anyway – would a Canadian make a fuss/mess in public? I dunno – maybe we could start a trend.

          1. Perhaps “rebellious” is not the word…vindictive? no…
            Determined? … Decisive?
            As for Canadians doing it, we say we’re sorry when we hit our toe on a chair. I can’t imagine most Cs ripping apart a product and leaving a mess, for any reason, even the Environment.

          2. Isabel Gibson

            Barbara – Well, you may be right. Although when I see the stuff that blows out of recycle boxes–ironically enough–and then sticks in the stand of trees beside our house, only to need to be fished outta there, I am in awe of people’s ability to ignore a mess for which they’re responsible.

  2. Norm Haug

    At least most Municipalities are trying to recycle. There are bigger fish to fry, I think. The Americans, (yes, those same people who complain about the dirty oil from the tar sands) want to route their coal through B.C. because Washington and Oregon don’t want massive coal trains dumping coal in yet to be built coal ports in their states. There is a huge pile of coal in North Vancouver, with coal dust blowing all over our beautiful North Shore and our Municipalities have no control over it. Don’t expect our new Liberal Government to do anything about it. Four more years! Argh!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Norm – As unorganized as it is (or seems), at least recycling something is better than doing nothing. And you make a good point: the real environmental game is definitely elsewhere – protecting water from contamination, managing hazardous materials better, protecting habitat.

      1. Saw a T-shirt logo on Saturday. Showed a dolphin and the words:
        HELP PROTECT THE PLANET
        and then some website in small print to go to.

        There are 3 times the people for the earth to support, even with all the “protecting” we think we can or want to do.

        John said the T-shirt should read:
        SAVE THE PLANET: killyourself.com

        Too harsh?

        1. Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – I hate it when that happens – I compose a pithy, thoughtful reply and forget to hit ‘reply’ for the second time. A character in David Brin’s Earth got focused on winnowing the human population to the numbers that could be supported in a pre-technological hunter/gatherer mode – a few hundred thousand, worldwide? Now that was harsh!

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