Recycling: what is it? Is it the thing where instead of throwing out that old T-shirt, you clean a floor with it? Is it putting aluminum cans in a bin?
Or is it a vicious battle of individual versus bureaucracy that won’t end until one side perishes?
Every country has its own recycling mandates, and they vary further from town to town, region to region. Britain has this sort of thing where they separate recyclables from trash and that from scraps, and while I can sort out what’s a scrap I can’t quite seem to parse what goes in what bin. My in-laws are constantly forced to remind me, “No no, that paper is trash, that paper that seems identical is in fact recyclable.”
Japan preferred the fool-proof method of handing out a flier diagramming what, exactly, was recyclable and when, with special emphasis on the when part. Burnable trash went out Monday and Friday, non-burnables on Wednesdays. You could recycle milk cartons, but only if you flattened them and tied them into bundles and put them out on a Thursday morning. Plastic bottles were recyclable, glass was too if you sorted it by color and put it out every other Tuesday and lit a candle in a pentagram.
And god forbid you find yourself with a steel can, because on my complicated, eighteen-by-fourteen-inch full-color illustrated diagram, I couldn’t find a single mention of them, except that they couldn’t go with the burnables or non-burnables.
This meant that recycling them became a furtive activity, on par with finding a discreet way to spit out a piece of un-chewable meat. I’d find a convenience store that’s recycle bins out front included steel cans and walk up to it, pretending I wanted to examine a sign in the window as I casually unloaded four or five cans I’d squirreled into my purse, wondering, wondering, was today the day I’d be caught?
For the record, I was caught once. And the police were called. The police laughed, gave me a light scolding, and told the convenience store owner not to waste their time, but still; Japan takes its recycling seriously.
My town wasn’t even the worst for it. When we moved to Nagoya, Husband (then Fiancé) and I made the discovery that items previously deemed merely non-burnable were now recyclable. Anything marked プラ, pronounced pura, short for plastic, was eligible. This included Doritos bags, candy wrappers, the cellophane every vegetable came swaddled in—they all now belonged with the PET bottles rather than the occasional flyer for a new house some well-meaning company had mistakenly delivered to the foreigners.
Yet in many ways recycling in the city was less restrictive. For example, if I put my bag out the night before collection rather than the morning of, no one would yell at me. Progress! Pretty soon, Husband and I had this thing down to a science, and we felt good about it, because in my hometown recycling is Important.
Now, I don’t know about the rest of the US in the 90’s, but when I grew up we devoted at least one school unit a year to recycling, and that was considered perhaps not quite enough. I vividly recall at age eleven seeing someone put a can into a trash bin and being thoroughly shocked. My god, man, what are you doing? That’s recyclable!
Husband and I moved to America and I realized that by Japanese standards my hippy-dippy hometown is positively lax. Still, I was relieved to continue helping the environment. Even when Husband and I finally moved into the one apartment complex in town that doesn’t recycle, I wasn’t deterred. Of course we would continue to recycle, I declared. To not do so would be, would be, uh…Would really, really bother me.
Therefore, once a week Husband and I lug bins of recycling to my parents’ house and dump them in their bin. They’re very gracious about it.
However, that process would be easier if Husband could remember which country we live in. Almost two years after we arrived on these shores, we still get to have conversations like this:
Me: Why is there a potato chip bag in the recycling? I know it says “pura,” but you can’t recycle potato chip bags here.
Husband: I didn’t put it there.
There are two of us living in this apartment, and lemme tell you, it wasn’t me who tried to put the torn-up spam mail among the crushed Coke cans, and who, for the billionth time, crammed all the bundled up paper from the Amazon Prime box into the bin and then claimed that it was full and therefore he could leave the empty gallon jug next to the sink for three days.
We know. We may choose to withhold his name from this blog out of the goodness of our heart, but trust me, it’s not my pillow those self-same items are finding their way under when they have been plucked from their hidden depths.
It’s not that recycling is complicated in my town; it isn’t, compared to Japan. And now in light of a recent development, recycling is positively brainless. Previously we had to separate everything before we put it on the curb—aluminum from steel, glossy paper from dull, and only number 2 plastics allowed. Then this fall the city announced that you could just put all your recyclables in a single big recycling bin and they would deal with it for us.
Convenience? What??? As someone who saved all her twist ties because I couldn’t figure out whether they were steal or aluminum, I wasn’t sure I could handle this change. Couldn’t I sort them, just a little?
But it was true. The trailer full of sorting bins that drove around the neighborhoods had been replaced by a garbage-truck looking thing. Suspicion bloomed in our hearts. Was the city really recycling our goods, or just hauling them away to be dumped somewhere?
My mom couldn’t believe this was an efficient way to operate until Husband went on at some length about giant magnets and sorting machines before attempting to hide a banana peel among the glass bottles.
My dad, though, seemed to take it in stride. In the ultimate act of recycling, he simply took the plastic bins that we’d been using for sorting for the last twenty years and put them in our big recycle bin before calling it a day. Problem solved.
Reduce, reuse, recycle. Those were the watchwords of my education, and they now rule my life. Reduce the things you can’t figure out how the heck to recycle, reuse the things you can’t recycle, and recycle the things you can parse how to. And if you can’t, haul them to my parents’ house and put them in their bin; it’ll all go to the same place in the end.
That is to say, the dump I’m pretty sure city council is saving a fortune in revenue on by employing to haul away our recyclables. Ah, America.
Any strange recycling customs that I missed? Have you had an unfortunate brush with recycling in Japan? Or anywhere? Can you confirm that banana peels do not belong in the same bin as the plastic bottles? Share your humorous stories in the comments below!