My family is living the entirety of 2020 without producing any garbage. We’re now three months in and I feel its only fair to report that I’m now having regular, fairly elaborate dreams about sorting recyclables. Which makes me kind of wonder about myself.
Everyone I know is running around with their hair on fire, trying to figure out if they have enough toilet paper to survive the Coronapocalypse. Me? I’m washing tin foil and tying broken rubber bands back together. I’m sitting on the floor of my kitchen dutifully cutting open tea bags (the ones we didn’t realize were made of plastic until after using them- argh!) in order to liberate a teaspoon of tea from the horrible fate of being trapped in a little nylon pyramid FOREVER.
Also, I’m looking up whether staples are recyclable. Not paper with staples in it, mind you.
Although it’s entirely possible that all of these warning signs indicate that I’ll soon be talking to the aliens who live in my toaster oven, I’m actually glad to have something to spend my attention on 24/7 besides hand sanitizer and worrying. Because beyond a few basic things like washing up often and staying away from large gatherings, there’s not a whole lot most of us can do about the big, mysterious virus. On the other hand, there’s so much for me to learn and do when it comes to figuring out how to live No Garbage. At least with this preoccupation, I can actually do something.
But, as I think about it, I realize there’s more connection between our Year of No Garbage and the current global pandemic than that. I think the Corona virus comes to us with a message that we ignore at our own peril and it is this: we are all much closer than we think. Watching the news reports day by day, as reports of confirmed cases leapfrog from one country to another, I’ve been struck by the fact that all of these infected people are connected, each to the other: the trail of the virus is like a spider web that spirals ever-outward.
The virus knows something fundamental we often seem to forget: we are all connected. And much more closely than we might like to admit.
Which reminds me why garbage is such a colossally bad idea. I say idea, because I’ve decided that there really is no such thing as garbage. And just in case you think I’m talking to my toaster here, let me explain: When, for our first project back in 2011, our family gave up sugar for a year, sugar was an actual, definable thing we could see, taste, or read in a list of ingredients; it even has it’s own chemical formula. But what’s the chemical formula for garbage? There isn’t one, of course, because garbage could be anything, anywhere. It’s a random classification we apply to things when we feel we are done with them. But as we all know “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” which is to say, garbage is in the eye of the beholder.
“Garbage” isn’t so much a thing as an opinion. “Trash” isn’t so much a noun as it is a verb: “to discard, to throw away.”
And “throwing things away” is a human strategy that involves a willing suspension of disbelief that such a thing is possible on a planet that is round and finite. Because of course garbage doesn’t “go away,” it just goes somewhere else. This may be okay with you, unless you happen to live in the neighborhood of the landfill. Then again, at the rate we’re going the landfill will soon be in everybody’s neighborhood. Think I’m exaggerating? Have you heard lately about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Which is now twice the size of Texas? Have you heard about how they’re finding micro-plastics in everything from fish and shellfish to beer, bottled water, tap water and sea salt? Our garbage is everywhere, all around us, and we don’t even realize it.
It reminds me of that great old quote from the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Cartoonist Walt Kelly knew that fifty years ago, but the rest of us can’t quite seem to come to grips with it. That would mean changing the way we do business, the way we live our lives, and, well, everything. And the suggestion of fundamental change freaks people out, a LOT. Even more than the Coronavirus maybe.
So here’s what I propose: henceforth, the question that every company who makes anything, ever, has to be able to answer is this: What happens to this, and its packaging, when the consumer is done with it? In the industry this is known as “end of life recycling.”
Why is that so important?
Because we’re all connected. As the Corona virus correctly points out the earth is smaller than we think. Maybe there are even fewer than seven degrees of Kevin Bacon after all. We humans, like it or not, are all in this together. Mutating pandemics and polymer particles in our rainwater have this in common: they don’t pay any attention to the walls that humans have built to make ourselves feel safe, whether they are figurative or literal. So when we talk about the merits of socialized medicine, as I have no doubt we will in the wake of this global panic, in the next breath we might consider another radical proposition: socialized garbage. We can take our linear consumption cycle and make it circular. Just like the world already is.
For my part, I’m just gonna keep right on trying to figure out where everything goes… the shattered Tupperware top, the broken pieces of a zipper I replaced, the empty tube of lipstick. Maybe the answers will come to me in one of my highly detailed recycling dreams. Just please don’t tell my husband about the two trunks in the hall that contain some 60 gallons of shredded paper which I haven’t quite figured out what to do with. I do think I’m gonna get some crap for that one.