What the Recycling Says

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    Look at our curb and you might see the Leaning Tower of Pizza Boxes. Or maybe the Great Wall of Chinette. Or even the gluttonous domain of Mocha Picchu, where tattered remains of empty ice cream cartons stacked one upon another rise to breathtaking peaks.

    Whatever jumps to mind, the virtual Stonehenge of brown grocery bags outside our house qualifies as a monument to righteous living, an offering to the municipal gods, and an unabashed man-made wonder of the suburban world.

    Yes, it is Thursday. And it is recycling day.

    Put stack after stack out there for all to behold. Now bring on the garbologists to sift through and analyze all the waste and weirdness that mark our modern-day family of four. The bags of glass, plastic, cardboard, and paper you see lined up so artfully have a story to tell. If these piles could speak, what would they say?

    For one thing, they might tell you that our oven hasn’t been turned on in weeks. As much as we support the concept of the time-tested, sit-down family dinner, afternoons and evenings clogged with soccer, dance, swim team, and Boy Scouts turn mealtime into a traveling circus of take-out chicken nuggets, deli sandwiches, snack foods, and bowls of cereal eaten on the fly.

    That means today’s recycling includes empty boxes of Cocoa Puffs, Cheerios, and Cheez-Its; eleven disposable coffee cups; three hollow Pringles tubes; a half-dozen containers of Greek yogurt; four half-gallon cartons of 2 percent milk; and five jumbo plastic soda bottles crunched flat. I would like to state for the record that this week’s haul includes only one empty pizza box. Okay, two. All right, there are three, but one is personal-pan-pizza-sized.

    Anyway, you get the picture. And chances are, you’re no different than we are. You always ask for paper instead of plastic in the grocery line because you know those same brown bags will bulge with recyclables in only a matter of days. You’re secretly proud that passersby will think you extremely well-read because of the healthy stack of New Yorker magazines you’re sending out. (Truth is, you never read any of them, and they’ve been cluttering up the family room for more than two years.) You pat yourself on the back for creating a perfectly balanced, ecologically pure feedback loop by walking catalogs from Arhaus, J. Jill, and Vineyard Vines straight from the mailbox to the green recycling bin. Hey, if they never enter the house, maybe no one will think of buying a new Baldwin slipcovered sofa, a sleeveless linen tunic, or a blue canvas club belt, adorned with pink whales.

    The night before our biweekly pickup, I keep a close eye on the driveway across the street. I’ve long since misplaced the printed calendar that shows our designated recycling day, but I know I can count on our elderly neighbors to get it right every time. Sure enough, just before sunset, out come three small bags filled with properly rinsed bottles and cans and a plastic milk crate holding two-weeks’-worth of the daily newspaper.

    What must they think of their humble hedgerow compared to the Maginot Line we routinely build on our side of the street? We’ll raid kitchen cabinets to locate plastic containers the dog has chewed past the point of usefulness, rifle through closets for empty boxes that once held pairs of shoes I didn’t even know we owned, and even pick through the wastebasket to retrieve empty bottles of Tylenol and the cardboard boxes they came in.

    Add all that to the pile and then some. At my most ambitious, I’ve found myself lurching around the attic and tool house hoping to find something sublime and forgotten to throw out there, like multiple rolls of gift wrap I know we’ll never use or cheap glass flower vases left over from Valentine’s Day. Late into the night, I’ll even brave wind, rain, and lightning bolts to carry that one last bag out to the street.

    I suppose we do send out our fair share of items that break the recycling rules. We look the other way when the kids throw popsicle wrappers and plastic wrap in the bin, and I’ll admit to tossing in more than a few Styrofoam cups myself and not caring. I guess I could consult the county’s recycling website and read up on the official dos-and-don’ts, but once that list is seen, it cannot be unseen, and like Edgar Allan Poe’s tortured murderer in “The Telltale Heart,” I would then have to live with the pounding, deafening guilt forever.

    Blissfully unaware of the guidelines, I sleep just fine. Though on the morning the truck comes chugging down the street, I do wake up worrying whether the driver will take items that stretch the boundaries of acceptability – metal curtain rods, broken picture frames, a massive load of metal coat hangers – or toss them back onto the lawn to humiliate us in front of the entire neighborhood.

    And let’s not even talk about the flash panic that comes over you when you realize something went out that wasn’t supposed to go out. You don’t know what it is to live on the edge until you find yourself tearing through the piles at seven in the morning with the big green truck bearing down on you, hoping to God you’ll be able to find your 14-year-old’s orthodontic aligner before everything gets scooped up and pitched.

    Dawn breaks now over this temple of empty margarine tubs, salsa jars, and jugs of low-fat, hazelnut-flavored Coffee-Mate creamer. An hour from now, it will all be gone – unless the wind kicks up and blows plastic and paper all over the yard. Hey, no problem. I’ll just gather up the detritus and drop it on the other side of the neighborhood in front of a house the truck hasn’t come to yet.

    Let that be our little secret, okay? It’s the neighborly thing to do.

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    Tony Farrell
    Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. He lives in Richmond’s West End with his wife, Laura, and their children, Lucy and Will. He writes for the DadZone every other month and shares theater reviews occasionally too.