Sunday, September 09, 2012

Far, Far Away

Americans are often accused of being "extravagantly wasteful" or promoting a "throw away culture". I'm hardly going to argue with that given that several families were able to make a living digging empty beer cans out of the dumpsters behind our former apartment. But a couple of things over the last few days have made me realize that it isn't just a party-like-it's-1999 attitude, like some drunk trust fund baby in a bar setting $20 bills on fire simply because he thinks he has an unlimited supply of them. Rather it's more like a kid's belief in unicorns; that there really is a land of Far, Far Away. Only instead of a place of handsome princes and beautiful princesses (or in the modern version, a couple friendly ogres and a talking donkey having sex with a dragon), our Far, Far Away is a place where we send anything that we are unwilling to deal with ourselves. Something breaks? Throw it Far, Far Away. Something stinks? Flush it Far, Far Away. Get bored with some trinket after you realize that it isn't the key to eternal youth and endless sex like the advertisement promised? Throw it Far, Far Away.

Then we have the once-removed's like recycling. Not to pan on recycling as a concept; everything gets recycled whether it's us doing it or Mama Gaia (who catches everything no matter how Far, Far Away we throw it). I'm talking about Recycling American Style where you mindlessly set some of your trash to the curb in a blue tub, it goes Far, Far Away, and you get to pat yourself on the back for being so green. If you want to see the ultimate blank stare, ask your neighbor next trash day what happens to the stuff in the blue tub. I got one of those yesterday from one of the park maintenance guys. We're looking for topsoil to build some raised beds and wondered if the township or county ran a municipal compost pile. Most of those allow locals to haul away the finished compost for free or cheap. I ask him if the yard waste we set out went to a compost pile. "No, we just toss it in a roll-off." Yes, I understand that. My question is, when the big truck comes and picks up the roll-off it goes...? Blank stare.

I have no idea myself where that roll-off ends up, but I do know that in Flint, Michigan, yard waste was going to the same landfill as the rest of the trash for years after residents were required to set yard waste out in separate bags. That is also the fate of most blue-bin trash as the market for such things as old newspaper and plastic have been completely saturated since the 1970's. My school used to have an annual paper drive where everyone would bundle up their old newspapers and pile them in a rented semi trailer next to the school. When the trailer was full, it would get picked up and hauled to a paper recycler and the school would get a wad of cash. At least, that's how it worked until the last paper drive sometime in the mid-1970's; when we showed up with our semi load of newspapers, the recycler told us he had all the newspaper he needed for all eternity. Because he felt sorry that our fundraiser was already going to cost us money, he was willing to take our newspapers without charging us a dumping fee. Not much has changed in the 40 years since. In fact, about the only thing in all the millions of blue bins that nets income in curbside recycling is the aluminum. Glass and steel are about break-even with paper and plastic being a dead loss. That's not just in terms of money, either. Every study of curbside recycling has come to the same conclusion: it takes more energy and resources on net to run the recycling program than the program saves.

The problem is another fantasy that Americans have; that we can keep doing everything we've been doing for the last 70 years only more of it, year after year without consequence if we'll only do just a little itty bitty bit. Like throw our plastic water bottles into a blue bin instead of a trash bag, or change out all the incandescent light bulbs in the McMansion for compact florescents. Remember the green mantra from the 1970's? Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. The order isn't random. First step is to reduce. Everything. Buy less crap. Not buy even more crap, then think you're making it all OK by throwing 2% of it in a blue bin. Recycling is the last resort, not the magic cure-all that's going to let us keep our 5,000 square foot "starter homes" and 6,000 pound SUV's that you have to park in the driveway because the 4-car garage is stuffed with quad runners and jet skis and bins full of clothes that no one has ever worn and kitchen gadgets still in their blister packs. Of course, any suggestion that maybe it would be a good idea to cut back on the amount of crap we buy and hoard, and the best you can hope for is a blank stare. More likely, you'll get a punch to the head.

(And yes, we're as guilty as the next guy. In spite of a concerted effort over the last six or seven years to cut the crap pile down to a reasonable size, our home still looks like something off one of those hoarders TV shows, with plastic bins stacked literally to the ceiling and little narrow passageways to navigate through the stacks. And while our sissy SUV is way smaller than most of the monster trucks running around here, it's till way more vehicle than we need to haul our butts around, while simultaneously being too small to do anything useful, like moving building materials. We're going in the right direction, but the going is slow and we frequently backslide.)

So what brought up all this tree-hugging crap? This:

Ya know how they say that when the tide goes out, everyone knows who's swimming naked? Well, yesterday the park began tearing down the old, dilapidated board fence that runs between the park and the woods behind us, and there was a multitude of naked people. Nearly everyone who lives along the back fence tosses their leaves over the fence instead of bagging them up like they're supposed to. I'm not sure in what universe that it's easier to heave piles of leaves over a 7-foot fence instead of stuffing them in a leaf bag, but no one has ever accused humans of being overly logical. But the section of fence behind us is extra special. Not just leaves and branches, but plastic bags, aluminum foil, candy wrappers, flower pots, bottles, cans. It's all in there. The pièce de résistance was the 10 yards or so of dirt that had been tossed over the fence. That must have been done over a period of years, because digging through the dirt pile was like working a kitchen midden at an archaeological dig, only instead of animal bones and pot shards I was digging up Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrappers and broken pieces of plastic flower pots. The irony of the whole thing is after all the effort that was put into tossing all that dirt over the fence, I plan to bring back as much as possible before the guys get here to put up the new fence, in order to level up some low places and stabilize the wobbly patio stones that have been undercut by run-off.

Anyway, the point is, Far, Far Away can be as much psychological as physical. In this case, literally out of sight, out of mind. If I toss my candy bar wrapper or a broken flower pot over this fence so I can't see it, that object must cease to exist and there are no possible consequences because it is now in the magical land of Far, Far Away. Of course, one person's Far, Far Away is someone else's property. I wonder how loudly the former residents would have screamed if the owner of the adjacent property had started throwing leaves, dirt and garbage in the other direction?

Anyway, not much of a point other than maybe we should start thinking about whose back yard all the stuff we throw Far, Far Away lands in and maybe throwing a great deal less of it.

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