A STATE OF MIND: Zero-sort Recycling?

by Larry Floersch

AStateofMind-LarryFloerschRecycling is now mandatory. So what does that mean to all us recyclers? To me it meant the company that hauls away what I incorrectly refer to as my “garbage” replaced my old recycling and trash cans with a big new “zero sort recycling” bin and a new, smaller, trash bin. The message seemed to be that with zero-sort recycling, I would need more space for my recycling and less space for my trash, most of which I am supposed to be composting anyway. That got me to thinking about how we had to do things in the “old days” and how far we’ve come.

Back before I convinced a trash hauling company to send a truck backwards up my long driveway by giving them lots of money each month, I would haul my own garbage. In the earliest days I would haul it to what was then called the “dump,” where I had to dodge huge earthmovers with steel “tires” that looked like the bottom of football shoes and unload my car in a swirl of a bazillion seagulls. There was no sorting at all — everything got dumped onto the pile and what was not consumed and therefore composted by the seagulls got smooshed by those steel tires. If I remember correctly, the fee was quite small.

I should have suspected things were going to get more complicated when the dump changed its name to “landfill.” For a while, going to the landfill seemed a lot like going to the dump. I still had to dodge the earthmovers and the seagulls. But then things went even more upscale and they built a “recycling center” down the road, where everyone could take their garbage and stuff and only dodge each others’ Volvos and Saabs rather than seagulls and earthmovers.

The recycling center was a bunch of steel dumpsters as big as 18-wheelers, and you had to sort your garbage into “trash” and “recyclables” and throw things into the correct dumpster. The trash was easy. There was only one dumpster with a built-in smoosher. Recyclables were a different story. Plastics went into one of several dumpsters depending on the recycling “number” on the bottom, empty wine bottles (of which we produce a lot of here at my house) and pickle jars (of which we produce somewhat less) went in another, cans in another, paper in yet another. There was always a friendly and watchful attendant on duty to encourage you to avoid mistakes by yelling at you. As a bonus, you got to meet a lot of your friends and neighbors on Saturday mornings and see what they had been drinking all week. I learned a lot about wine and beer and my friends in those days, and we all had a lot of satisfying fun smashing glass items as we talked about hangovers. Also, the recycling center charged you more to allow you to sort your garbage and recycle, so you felt you were making an important contribution to saving kittens and baby whales.

Then one day the “landfill” became a “transfer station,” a name that gave me the impression my garbage was merely changing to a different line on Boston’s “T.” I noticed on those occasions when I would have to go to the transfer station itself rather than the recycling center that things had changed there. The seagulls were gone, and now you had to dodge the earthmover in a big shed, which you backed into to dump your trash. That made things a lot more exciting and challenging, kind of like a computer game, because the earthmover nearly filled the shed and was constantly in motion and you could only use your rearview mirrors to steer. Also, they would weigh my little pickup truck on a big truck scale when I entered and when I left and charge me according to the difference in weight. That truck scale — and the amount they charged me to unload my truck — gave me visions of buying a big rig and taking to the road as a second job to help meet the expense.

Now we have zero-sort recycling. When I heard about it, I was relieved that I would no longer have to go to the recycling center and sort things into the correct dumpster. I threw everything recyclable into my new zero-sort recycling bin.

My giddiness over the new system was dashed the next time the trash hauling truck arrived. The men on the truck got out and opened my zero-sort container. They then sorted through what I had put in the zero-sort bin and threw most of it into the trash hopper on the truck, while occasionally giving me glances that conveyed what a pathetic recycler I was. It was worse than getting yelled at for throwing things into the wrong dumpster at the recycling center.

Other things have changed too. It seems like only last year items like dead fluorescent light bulbs had to be returned to places that sold them. The other day I took a bundle of such bulbs to a large home improvement store located many miles away. When I asked the “sales associate” where I should put the bulbs, he gave me a rather blunt answer that is the kind of joking men do amongst themselves in locker rooms or at large home improvement stores. The longer answer is they no longer accept such items for recycling.

So I guess “zero sort” means that what goes in the zero-sort bin doesn’t have to be sorted because you have already sorted it before you put it in the bin. And from what I can tell, a lot less is considered recyclable than what I previously thought. My refrigerator door now sports several brochures that explain some of the new recycling rules, because I must constantly refer to them when taking out the garbage. And a ruler, so I can measure things (who knew that plastic lids had to be 2 inches or larger or corrugated boxes had to be in pieces 2 feet or smaller).

The brochures also assure me that this new zero sort system is easier. I try to keep that in mind as I sit on the lid of my smaller trash bin trying to get it to close.

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