The Big Blue Bin

Remember back in the ’70s, when people used to ask if you believed in ecology? Meaning, of course, do you support saving the earth and the whales and whatever else needs saving. But I would act dumb and say I thought ecology existed, which says a lot about what a dork I was in those days. These days everyone, it seems, believes in ecology. In the sense of, as answers.com tells me, “The study of the detrimental effects of modern civilization on the environment, with a view toward prevention or reversal through conservation.” Everybody wants to save the world. Everyone’s concerned with global warming, and the whales, and the polar bears, and every other species, locale, and phenomenon that needs saving. Everybody is into recycling, and using cloth grocery bags, and vaguely associated issues like not tossing your used-up D-cells in the trash. Everybody? I have a conversation with my wife every time there’s an election. “How can they vote for so-and-so?” she’ll say, and I’ll say “Not everyone’s like us, just look down in Orange County, at all the Republicans down there” (I live in Culver City, an enclave of Los Angeles), and then I’ll say something like “Those guys are commies compared to folks in the heartland.” The point is that a lot of us people going on and on about equality and issues and social change live in ivory towers. And we don’t get to hang out with the other 98 percent of the country; not just the people who disagree with us politically, but the people in different economic classes and stuff like that. (By the way, I’m getting back to the D-cells in the trash. Eventually.) Some of you are shouting that you’re in the trenches working with the disadvantaged every day. That you know people of other cultures better than your own. And maybe you do. And good for you, and I’m not being facetious when I say that. But you’re in the minority. Most of us socially responsible people hang out with others of our ilk. We take it as a given that most of our friends and acquaintances live their lives like we do. We freak out when a member of our family says that if Hillary’s nominated they’ll vote for her, but if Obama is, they’ll vote for McCain. Because though they say it’s because of experience (like any kind of experience can prepare someone for the presidency), we suspect it’s racism. And though we know that, if you peel away enough of our layers, we’re a little bit racist too, we act horrified and look at the offender with new eyes. So … everyone we know is a liberal … everyone we know thinks racism and sexism and sexual-orientationism are bad, bad things … everyone we know will do everything they can to save the environment. Except the gazillions of people who don’t.
I was looking at my blue recycling bin the other day, thinking about giving it its quadrennial washing to remove the bamboo sap that makes a black crust on the top, and
realizing just how much stuff my wife and I go through every two weeks. Enough to fill that big blue bin. Two people. Fifteen years ago, nearly all of that was going in the trash, except anything that had a deposit, which we dutifully brought back to the supermarket and turned in. Progress, that’s what we’re making. Take our house and multiply it by a couple of million, and we’re doing a hell of a job with this recycling thing. Yay, us. Then I see the guy down the block, the one who has a whole lot of recyclables in a particular week, Christmas wrappings or whatever, and what doesn’t fit in his blue bin gets shoved in the black. Destined for the landfill. And I realize, holy crap, they’re only recycling if it’s convenient. They’ll put it in the black bin rather than find a place for it until the blue’s emptied. Every time I have this realization, or one like it, I start casting an eye around. And remembering things I’ve seen. And realizing that, no, not everyone’s us. Not everyone will take the trouble to go all the way to the other end of the kitchen to toss the fortune from a fortune cookie into the recyling because it is, after all, paper. And I mutter about my neighbors for a little while, and then I move on. I move on to the restaurants. Culver City’s recycling program is pretty broad. All cans (and coat hangers!), glass, paper of any kind, including waxy stuff like milk cartons, and plastics 1 through 5. Does all this stuff really get recycled? I’m kind of suspicious about it. I picture the guys on the conveyor belts in whatever godforsaken place they go through the stuff pulling out all the plastic grocery bags and laughing hysterically that I could be so stupid as to think they were really recycling them. Then tossing them, along with all the PETEs and the polypropylenes into a big bin marked LANDFILL. (Related suspicion: The office building where they assure you that someone goes through the garbage and pulls out the recyclables. Oh, really?) But if that’s what’s going on, there’s not much I can do about it. Anyway, my point isn’t about 1s through 5s. It’s the 6s. Recyclable plastic number 6 is polystyrene. Styrofoam, in one form. In another, used extensively for food packing, both on what you buy at Trader Joe’s for later consumption and what you buy at the Indian takeout place to toss down your gullet that very night. Sixes make up the majority of food containers. There’s a healthy dose of 1s and the occasional 5, but 6 is king. (The Chinese place down the block uses 6 for the lids and 5 for the bottoms. What’s that about?) This past Saturday we tried a new supposedly-macrobiotic place in the successfully (against all my expectations) redeveloped downtown of Culver City. (Side note: can a place be macrobiotic if it serves fish? Just askin’.) Everything was served in plastic. It was all number 6, our old friend polystyrene. And I thought, isn’t macrobiotic supposed to be like the most natural thing in the world, getting back to the earth and all that, and at those freakin’ prices couldn’t they use real dishes (later debate: the energy needed to wash them), and if they have to use throwaways couldn’t they use paper, or at least some number of plastic that gets recycled in the city the stuff is sold in? So I hatched my plan: The first thing I’m going to do when I’m elected governor of California is get a law passed that says, if you sell food in disposable containers, you have to use something that can be recycled in the city you do business in. You sell in Culver City? Use paper, or PETE or something. It costs a little more, maybe? Tough. Suck it up. When you’re charging 12 dollars for a fake-egg-salad sandwich and four bucks for a cupcake, you can afford it.

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Nathan Walpow is the editor of FourStory.org, an affordable housing advocacy site concentrating on Southern California housing, transportation, and sustainability. He’s also the author of four Joe Portugal mystery novels, with the fifth, Bad Developments, currently appearing on FourStory as a weekly serial.

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