Thursday, April 14, 2016

[one reason] why I have no hope for the future

Bren Bataclan, 'Landfill'

(Meanwhile, a recent study suggests that sea levels will probably rise even higher than we thought—three feet—by 2100.)

So I have a job. It's not a great one. We've gone over this. At the risk of divulging too much about how I earn my paycheck and where, I'll say that one of my occasional responsibilities is to check on a few trash bins. If the bins are full, I am to remove the refuse-laden bags and put empty ones in place. The full bags are deposited into a large cart in a back room, and are eventually wheeled into the basement and unloaded into a couple of dumpsters by the loading dock. There are dumpsters for rubbish, single-stream recycling, and flattened cardboard.

The trash bins are clearly labeled. One says "TRASH" in adhesive white letters, stark against a hinged aluminum lid. The other lid bears the universal recycling symbol (♻). There is no ambiguity as to what kinds of materials are meant to be placed in which bin.

We Americans aren't exactly renowned for our scrupulousness with regards to consumption and waste minimization. This innit no third-world dictatorship. This is the land of the free, spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. I own a petrol-powered automobile and it's my Christian responsibility to drive it to any destination farther than two blocks away. I eat meat with every meal, beef five times a week. If the town wants to bulldoze another tract of woodland to make room for another Starbucks, Qdoba, and Target, I say wonderful, job creation, shorter lines at all the other Starbuckses. I won't be unplugging my clothes dryer, cutting back on hot showers, giving up air conditioning, or withdrawing my support for monocropped produce anytime soon. But I recycle! I recycle, god damn it, so don't tell me I'm not doing my part.

Recycling is the one no-brainer of personal ecological responsibility (particularly here in the northeast). More Americans recycle than vote. You'd think we'd be better at it.

The place where I work attracts broad but somewhat particular cross-section of visitors. There's a lot of students, a lot of artists, a lot of educated and wealthy liberals. People who very probably listen to NPR on a regular basis, have strong beliefs about social justice, and considered themselves cultured and well-informed, if not enlightened. They'll insist on belaboring the French pronunciation when ordering a croissant; they vociferate about the lack of gluten-free bread options; they only drink craft beer. They're the type of people who can and are eager to drop $25 to gawk and nod at a special exhibition featuring scathing Japanese and South American criticisms against postwar consumerist cultural imperialism. They'll sit down for lunch and chat about art, politics, education, and their international travels. No doubt they consider themselves principled and knowledgeable people.

And yet.

I clean up after these people, and I've noticed that they suck at recycling. And it's not just that they routinely drop glass bottles into rubbish bin. Oil-saturated cardboard, unrecyclable plastic utensils, half-eaten muffins, and cream cheese packets routinely end up in the bins marked ♻. In very large quantities. I watch them dump them in, all blitheness, these people wearing berets and carrying canvas bags and sketchbooks and talking about the thing they just read in The Atlantic or Juxtapoz.

I recently spoke to Marco, one of the folks who sorts out the trash down by the loading dock. ("HEY SMOOVE," Marco greeted me. Marco calls me Smoove. I rather like Marco.) I asked him what he's instructed to do when he gets a bag of intermixed recyclables and rubbish. "The whole thing just goes in the trash dumpster, doesn't it?" is what I actually asked.

"Yup," Marco said.

Two bins. TRASH. ♻. All that's being asked of visitors is to follow simple instructions and command some pretty fundamental (and easily googled) municipal knowledge. And our educated, socially conscious, genteel clientele either don't know enough or can't be bothered to do it properly.

I hate to, but can't resist inducing a general principle of 21st-century ecological stewardship from this specific instance. Even when we mean well, we're incompetent; we have a vague idea of an ethical imperative, we half-ass it, and then congratulate ourselves for doing the right thing. We suck, we absolutely suck, at doing even the least we can do.

God forbid that someday the least we can do won't cut it.

(Meanwhile: study estimates that 90% of seabirds have plastic in their digestive tracts.)


  1. It's really sad reading all this. It really is...

    1. It's like working in a hospital as a nurse. You get kind of numb to it.