Eva Murray: Haul away, haul away, boys…

Wed, 11/23/2016 - 8:00pm

The words to the old sea chanty, in the back of my head, make me smile when I drive the truck noisily aboard the ferry, banging onto the steel deck in a U-Haul loaded with a ton-plus of trash, junk, recycling and unwanted items. We are hauling it away—maybe not to Australia, like in the song, but to the transfer station and recycling facility and redemption center and second-hand store. We haul it away now, proudly, as opposed to doing other things with it, things we shouldn’t even admit in civilized company, things that happened to trash, and junk, and unwanted items on this island for a long time — longer, perhaps than in your town.

This past Monday was the scheduled “truck day” on the infrequent Matinicus ferry. This is when we rent a 20-foot box truck and make a circuit of lumberyards and appliance stores to collect items of random freight too big for a little Cessna or too unwieldy or fragile to deliver by lobster boat and unload up a ladder, hand–over-hand.

After a two-hour ferry ride—which is sometimes a notoriously rough trip—a group of volunteers quickly unloads the things islanders need: this month, a new kitchen range ordered on very short notice, a mattress and some furniture, bags of wood pellets for a pellet stove, garden supplies, a couple of 18-foot boards. Sometimes it is barrels of lube oil for the power company or reels of cable or a big dish antenna for the phone company; sometimes it’s bales of hay. We joke around about being “Freeboard Logistics” or “U-Betcha Hauling and Towing;” I’ll deliver almost anything.

Anyway, the real story is what we haul off the island, that being the recycling and trash. The same group of volunteers quickly fills the U-Haul for my return trip to Rockland on the same ferry. We load boxes of household goods and clothing for Good Will or the Salvation Army. We load returnable glass, metal, and plastic beverage containers. We load trash such as Styrofoam packaging and busted household items and old leaky rubber boots and beach clean-up debris. Then, dead water heaters and flat truck tires and rusted bicycles; cans, jars, and plastic containers of every type; dozens of banana boxes filled with paper of every description, but mostly junk mail; batteries and electronics and fluorescent tubes; miles of fishermen’s rope; mattresses and refrigerators, and a huge quantity of corrugated cardboard. Just about everything comes to this island in a box. Then, another two hour ride across Penobscot Bay.

AS we start our annual massive retail holiday marketing blitz with the somewhat questionable festivity known as Black Friday, I am reminded — as I load a bunch of busted plastic toys and other junk for the dump, and clothing for Good Will — that all of this was purchased with hard-earned money once, by somebody who wanted it…once. Now look at it; it’s garbage, mostly, and a few armloads of rejected household oddments.

Anything not recyclable, anything headed for the transfer station hopper, meaning it is made of more than one type of material, or doesn’t have any chance of being purchased in bulk to be re-manufactured, or is contaminated in some way, that stuff costs $130.00 a ton for disposal. This community does not transport a lot of that, because our non-recyclable trash doesn’t include “garbage” in the old-fashioned sense of the word meaning organics, compostables, food products, or liquids, and that’s where most of the weight, and thus most of the cost of trucking and disposal, comes from. For most municipalities though, the per-ton cost of hauling all that uneaten food drives disposal costs to the moon.

Even if one is careful, the fact remains that it costs money and takes work to dispose of anything. In my opinion, it may not cost enough.

That probably sounds fairly stupid to you. After all, who in their right mind would advocate for higher fees, and what homeowner or municipal public works official would want costs to go up? Here’s the thing: I firmly believe that many people don’t realize what is involved in moving and managing their trash. People cultivate this naïve and misguided notion that it just “goes away.” Worse, people think “they” (mysterious other people, trash workers, whoever they are, strangers to be sure) make it go away. And worse, they think that once a jam jar or a butter wrapper is placed in a trash receptacle, it instantly becomes repulsive and disgusting and should not be touched again by the householder. Ooh, icky, so gross. Wrong on all three counts.

There is no excuse for not taking an interest in, sorting, and managing your household waste. Returnables go in one place, food scraps in another, recycling in another (if you rinse your containers, they won’t smell,) non-recyclable trash that won’t get stinky in another, toxic materials in another, and re-useable stuff in yet another direction. Not to sort is to be a burden on your neighbors, to put it mildly. Deal with each type of product appropriately. Minimize when you can and pay when you should. Yes, it is work; of course it is. Do you seriously think you shouldn’t have to do the work?

I bristle when I hear the tidying-up authors, the household simplifiers, the de-cluttering gurus, the anti-hoarders and the neatness-counts folks use the expression “throw away.” Anything you don’t use, they urge, throw it away! WHAT? No, you certainly don’t have to keep it (after all, you probably aren’t an islander who feels the need to lay broken machinery aside for parts,) but we mustn’t just “throw away” anything that is not actually, well, refuse.

To put wearable clothing, edible food, or useable toys, tools, books, dishes, bedding, etc. into the “waste stream” is not only needless, it is expensive to your town and thus the taxpayers, shamelessly wasteful of materials, contributing to the terrific problem of landfill space, and downright unethical for a variety of reasons. I really do believe that.

The trouble is, we haven’t got great systems in place to make resource management easy. I haul a lot of stuff to the various charity second-hand places, but people still tell me why they don’t approve of the corporate politics of one or another of those agencies and they don’t like to use them. I can’t really get into that; I need a place to haul the still-useable stuff, because I’m not taking it to the dump or tossing it into an open fire in my back field. It’s complicated.

The more I learn about the solid waste industry, the more complicated it seems. Having, evidently, too much spare time, I read everything I can get on recycling, and the chemistry of plastic packaging, and the international scrap-metal racket, and the geopolitical rough stuff. I learn about miners on death’s door trying to extract rare earth elements for our cell phones, and about children choking on acrid, toxic smoke as they burn off old computers to “recycle” the valuable bits, and about little old ladies in China making a living hauling copper pipe on the backs of their bicycles. I learn about ship-breakers and optical sorters and corn-based plastics and “putrescibles.” I read about the world’s biggest dumps—uh, landfills-- and about zero-landfill automobile factories, and about new technologies to re-use mixed plastics, and about garbage archaeology, where they find that 40-year old hot dog that still looks like a hot dog. I read about dioxin. I read about trash art. There is a lot to this.

Studying this stuff, we discover that the ethics of packaging and recycling aren’t as simple as we used to think. For example, I usually ask for paper bags in the grocery store, if I don’t bring my own. Are paper bags more environmentally conscientious than plastic bags? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe, if we pay what they’re worth, and use them several times, and then actually recycle or have some other practical end-use for them. Maybe, if we need them for their insulating properties, to keep milk cold for a long drive home, or maybe if we need the sturdy, flat-bottomed sack to stand up in the back of the pickup truck. Certainly not, if we are just going to carry two or three items from the store to our home in the trunk of our car, a trip of five minutes, and then we’re going to throw them away. Then, paper bags are a massive waste of trees, and truck fuel, and water for papermaking, and the grocer’s money.

There are always many variables to consider. One issue we tend to overlook is the relative weight of different packaging products, and the associated trucking costs, fossil fuel use, and emissions. Another example of this would be aseptic packaging, which I like to growl about because it is not recyclable. Manufactured in layers from three or four unrelated materials, these packages are lighter to truck than glass drink bottles or metal tuna cans, and that does have to be considered in the discussion somewhere.

I am no purist. I have met people who worry about how they are going to recycle that tiny circle of foil peeled from the end of a new tube of toothpaste. Don’t worry about that; I’m not even sure if it is foil. A lot of shiny, metallic-looking packaging is shiny, metallic-looking plastic. Anyway, worry about bigger things. Worry about buying stuff you don’t intend to keep. For instance, so much of our food is over-packaged. Now, I understand the history, and believe in safe, sterile food packaging—but we overdo it.

Being a trash geek makes me think about disposal when I shop. If I could change the world, I would require that the actual costs of disposal be included on the sticker price of every cheap, throw-away, single use product. By the way, those numbers would not be easy to discover. We are fed a heavy dose of marketing about “saving money,” but it’s often a false economy if you factor in the hauling and landfilling and disposal of all these “bargain” products, and I’m not even talking about environmental consequences. Pay now or pay later.

I’m not sure I can be called a solid-waste professional, because it doesn’t make me a living, but I have the same training as those guys. As a solid-waste amateur, as it were, I have formed a few educated opinions. I agree with charging a few cents for bags at the store. I would support something nobody in America seems to talk about, which is system of returnable deposit containers for all sorts of food products, not just beverages. I don’t like Styrofoam coffee cups and take-out containers; save the expanded polystyrene for lobster buoys and insulation. I encourage repairing things, and wish items were made to be repaired, like they were years ago. Above all, I think we need to educate ourselves, and in particular the next generation, about the real economy of purchasing items made to last, or to be recycled, or easily and inexpensively disposed of. Instead, we have a marketing madness, a notion of “saving money” which foists all sorts of crap on us consumers, cheap stuff useful to us for a few hours or a few months but which endures for unknown centuries in a hole in the ground. No thought is given to how we’re supposed to get rid of that convenient, inexpensive, toss-away item. In the long run, that flunks the straight-face test.

There is a socio-economic side to this. It sounds elitist to say, “Just buy your kid one good train set, or one good bicycle, and not a truckload of quick-to-break plastic kitsch as advertised on TV.” It sounds elitist, and it would be, to preach, “Don’t shop at the Big Box; instead, go to your local hand-carved toy artisan and buy something to last a decade or a lifetime.” Sure. I like that sentiment, but I understand that it doesn’t ring true in many communities. I would argue that here, in mid-coast Maine, we are being fed a line when we are told we’ll “save money” by purchasing light-duty junk. I see it; I haul it to the dump on the ferry.

 Eva Murray lives on Matinicus

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