Get that rotten banana peel out of the plastic recycling

Audio read by the author

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

13 February 2022

My muesli stuck in my throat listening to a recent National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast on a new recycling initiative in California. Recycling is new? Seriously?

The woman interviewed was clearly a recycling newbie, as she left her organic waste in the kitchen and went off on a week’s vacation. She returned to find the kitchen had turned into a fruit fly zoo in her absence.

California may have Silicon Valley, Hollywood and even Arnold Schwarzenegger (much to Austria’s dismay), but Germany’s way ahead in the recycling game. As it well should be. Germany has been doing it for decades. And in this land of engineers, recycling has been refined to a higher science.

The early days

During a visit to my sister in Virginia many years ago, we returned from a routine trip to the store with approximately 50 small plastic bags full of groceries. We really only needed about 25 bags, but the nice young fellow at the checkout mumbled something about “double-bagging,” my sister nodded and voilà! 50 bags.

I was too busy being amazed that people still bag your groceries for you in the U.S. to protest. But that’s a topic for another day.

Back at my sister’s place, I carefully smoothed and folded these 50 plastic bags, then turned to her to enquire where she collected her plastic recycling.

“Throw’m away. We don’t recycle,” she said, looking at me, steely-eyed, daring me to criticize this behavior. I managed to keep my mouth shut, concealing my inner horror.

“I know. It sucks. But we don’t recycle,” she reiterated. Just in case I caved in and made a remark.

I forced myself to toss the entire plastic bag collection into the garbage. It felt like a criminal act.

In Germany, this is a criminal act. If you throw plastic into the general garbage, just don’t let the Hausmeister catch you! For that matter, no putting compost in the paper, paper in the plastic or glass in the general garbage. Achtung, Abfallkontrolle!

If this sounds like a science – that’s exactly what it is.

Getting into the garbage groove

When guests come to my house, I am obligated to give them the full-length Garbage Management Tutorial.

“This bin here is for food scraps – but no animal protein, please. Eggshells may seem organic to you, but not where I live. Just don’t tell the chickens – you might hurt their feelings.”

And don’t ask me for an explanation. I just live here and try to understand the rules.

“Paper goes here. But not coated paper.”
“Plastic goes here – oh, but not that plastic. That’s a mixture of plastic and aluminum. You have to throw that away.”
“Glass – big bin. Here.”

This inevitably leads to bewilderment. Despite my expert induction into advanced waste management, it usually takes just an hour or two before I discover this expertly trained visitor meandering around the kitchen with something like a wad of chewing gum in their hand.

They’re wondering: “Now where does this go?”

“Hmm, chewing gum is a natural product, so into the compost…”

But wait!

There was that article saying that chewing gum is made of petroleum (yuk), so it’s not organic; it’s real garbage.

“Now as for the chewing gum wrapper, this part is paper – OK, easy.”

“But the outer packaging is a mixture of aluminum and plastic, so it goes here!”

After this time-consuming ordeal, they decide it’s easier just to give up chewing gum altogether.

And please don’t get me started on how to throw away batteries. It’s enough to make you throw away your flashlights and use candles on your next camping trip.

Or how about that paintbrush? Wooden handle, bristles soaked with something that reeks distinctly of petroleum…and what’s with the newspaper that caught the drips from said paint job?! Paper, soaked in gasoline, so… what?!

Arrrrgh! I knew it! I shouldn’t have even painted that table in the first place.

That problematic morning brew

It seems that all brands of coffee come in an eminently unrecyclable plastic/aluminum shrink-wrapped package. I guess the world’s coffee producers are all waiting for the other guy to come up with eco-friendly packaging.

Until then, I’ll just have to shed a little tear every time I throw away one of those eco-unfriendly coffee bags. Because giving up coffee is clearly out of the question.

Ohio beat California

Growing up, my family already recycled. I didn’t realize it, but my mother was way ahead of her time. We washed out our empty soup cans, stamped them flat on the kitchen floor and collected them in a plastic bin.

The year might not have been BC or AD but it was still RPA – the Recycling Paleolithic Age – so we had to drive these to some distant recycling center.

Fortunately, now that we are in the Recyclinglithic Age, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the U.S. government has a site where you can calculate your carbon footprint and how to reduce it. I figured out that recycling those soup cans in our seven-person household saved 280 kilos of CO2 per year.

I wonder if that made up for the fact that we had three cars and had to drive everywhere?

At my first office job in a travel agency (the same place I learned to type), I suggested that we recycle the approximately 10 kilos of outdated travel brochures that got tossed out every month. My boss gave me an indulgent smirk on hearing this proposal but he did allow me to contact a company specializing in recycling.

A gruff workman arrived in a big truck and wheeled a large, circular bin into the back room that came all the way up to my neck. I peered down into it and wondered how long it would take to fill with paper.

I also resisted the temptation to stick my head inside and call out “Hello! Hello!” to see if it echoed.

“Call me when it’s full,” he said. “But no glossy or coated paper. That can’t be recycled. Regular office paper only.”

I beamed with pride. I had done a good deed! I was doing my part to save the world. As the office gofer, apart from carrying out essential tasks like hand-delivering airline tickets to nearby offices, it was my job to sort out the old brochures. It boosted my pride to think these would be recycled now – at my initiative.

I wheeled the bin over to the shelf where I was sorting through the brochure collection.

I started sorting. Let’s see what we have here:
Cruise brochures – Very glossy. No.
Resort hotels in the Caribbean – Super shiny, meaning coated. No again.
Cancún, Acapulco – lovely, slick pages. Too lovely. Can’t be recycled.

And so it went.

In the end, I threw away all the brochures. In the trash. The only recyclable things in the entire office were letters and the paper I used to practice my typing. It barely covered the bottom of this oil-barrel sized bin.

Before it was even one-tenth full, I quit my job.

That was a long time ago, so maybe the bin has filled up in the meantime.

It’s nice to see that California is following my early lead. I’m sure the rest of the U.S. will follow in their footsteps, too. They always do.

Brenda Arnold

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