A Horse Walks into a Recycling Center

Say, for the sake of argument that you plan to take your family on a waterskiing trip.

You are excited. You do the planning, strategizing, packing and at last, you get everybody out there on the boat. Ready to take the first run of the day you look up from the water to gaze upon your family, and suddenly you realize they are… on their phones. They are bored. They are sweaty and— quite possibly— annoyed.

My system: so simple even an astrophysicist could figure it out. Eventually.

Suddenly a thought hits you that hadn’t occurred to you before: maybe no one wanted to go waterskiing but you.

This is the feeling I’d been having lately with regard to my family and the Year of No Garbage. Partly, I think this can be blamed on the nature of the project: whereas our Year of No Sugar entailed the bond of experiencing something together practically every single time we ate food, three times a day, for 365 consecutive days, living No Garbage is more… ephemeral than that. Sure, you throw garbage away more often than you eat food, but it isn’t an activity you do as a group, usually. Disposing of trash is generally a solitary act.

I also think this is in part because figuring out what products and packaging are made of is even harder than figuring out what ingredients are in our food. Sure, there are at least 61 different names for sugar, but there seem to be infinite combinations of plastics in the world, and unlike with food products, packaging corporations are under no obligation to list ingredients used in a little informational box on the side.

Consequently what I’d been finding was that instead of throwing things in the trash, people in my family were instead throwing things at me. And then I’d take care of getting it to where it needed to go.

I’ll give you a for instance. Like many people, in an effort to avoid pandemic exposure, we are probably now getting more packages delivered to us than ever before. The good news is that I have figured out how virtually all mailing materials may be recycled.

But I didn’t get the feeling anyone else in the house had absorbed this knowledge. When my husband Steve tried to hand me a bubble-wrap mailer the other day, I told him he could put it in the recycling himself. Steve protested he was afraid he’d do it wrong.

Then a little while later Greta did a very similar thing. A cellophane bag needed disposing of, so instead of taking care of it for her, I gave her a quiz: where do you think this goes? She guessed Polyethylene recycling, which was close but no cigar. No, I explained, any plastic that is stretchy may go to Polyethylene (supermarket plastic bag) recycling, but any plastic that is crinkly must go into the Terracycle box.

I realize my reactions sound suspiciously like the ravings of a Recycling-Obsessed Lunatic: No! Not the Low Density Polyethylene bin, you cretins! But I genuinely was surprised to realize that just because I have been consumed by thinking and writing about Zero Waste for the last six and a half months, didn’t necessarily mean that my family had absorbed that information. But come to think of it, why would it?

Here’s why I think this matters— and I ask this not out of irritation or pessimism but because I really was beginning to wonder— if my own participating family didn’t internalize the hard won lessons learned from a Year of No Garbage, than who would? If I was the only one actually living No Garbage in our house, then wasn’t that a failure of the project on some fundamental level?

Which isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, except for what it may bode for the future of our landfills and our planet. The $64,000 question being: can people change?

You can lead a horse to water, but can you make him recycle?

It was at this point I read the beginning of this blog to Steve and Greta. Was I wrong to interpret their behavior as lack of interest?

The answers were enlightening. Steve described it like this: “You know how you are about technology? The internet, the computer, the television, the telephone?”

“Sure,” I said. “I don’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. That’s your domain. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m afraid I’ll… mess up something you’re working on.”


So I’m realizing a few things, most importantly that learning doesn’t take place by osmosis. Hanging up recycling info in the kitchen and placing neat labels on bins isn’t enough. I need to actually talk to my family when they have something to discard. Every time. For a while. Change takes not only time but investment, and I realize I had made some assumptions that just didn’t follow.

So now that we’ve cleared the air things are changing. I’m trying to be more communicative about my beloved system, and they, for their part, aren’t just handing me stuff anymore. I’ve already noticed Greta checking in with me when discarding packaging. “Mom? This goes in polyethylene, right?”

I’m so proud.

2 thoughts on “A Horse Walks into a Recycling Center

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