Here in our small Virginia town, there is no separate recycling service. For years, the city assured us that recycling is pulled by hand from the trash. (Sure, maybe.) Then it stopped saying that and started telling us we needed to truck it over to the recycling facility ourselves. Which stinks, but we do it anyway, because THAT IS HOW WE WERE RAISED.
We all know this: Good people recycle. That’s the milieu in which I grew up, and probably you did, too.
But increasingly recycling is encountering difficulty. China started rejecting all our do-gooder American post-consumer recyclables, and things are piling up. A lot of it ends up getting put in a separate area of the landfill, or incinerated.
In the meantime, I propose there’s one arena in which to do more good most of us have been neglecting: composting.
I’ll be the first to say I’m a terrible composter. I very rarely cure it correctly, and then I get weird volunteer plants. (I once spent a summer eagerly anticipating pattypan squash only to yield…ornamental mini pumpkins.) J complains that sometimes it smells. I don’t know if it does much to actually nourish my garden.
BUT those are almost secondary concerns. The big advantage is that I’m saving stuff from ending up in the landfill. My picky eaters will reliably eat fruit, and so we generate mountainous quantities of orange and banana peels. J winds up with heaps of coffee grounds, and I brew a cup or two of black tea a day.
Because did you know this? Biodegradable things don’t actually break down in a landfill. Decomposition is an aerobic process and so if your tater peels are squashed between a dirty diaper and a candy bar wrapper, they aren’t getting the air and weather and microscopic critters needed to break them down. All the fancy biodegradable products you’re buying to feel better about your waste are set to stick around on the earth as long as the cheapest plasticky stuff. A landfill study found fifty-year-old newspapers that were still readable.
So put your biodegradable coffee cup in a bin or trash can or heap in your backyard. Throw in your old fallen leaves or your lawn clippings. If your family isn’t addicted to synthetic fleece, add your dryer lint. Your pet fur. Your wilting vegetables.
Unfortunately that seems to be the way sustainability works. While when I was a kid in the ’90s, optimism abounded that we could sub out fossil fuels for green energy and we could all buy those sorta self-righteously brownish recycled paper products and we’d save! the! world! One smart purchase at a time! But of course, solar energy comes with its own hazardous waste and paper still needs to be actually disposed of (and China isn’t having it). What is really required, most of the time, is a paradigm shift that is harder and challenges our ways of living: not smarter cars, but smarter cities, shorter commutes, more walking; not trendy earth-friendly products but moving away from a reliance on disposable products. I’m not saying I’m good at it — just that bigger changes are required than painless substitutes.
Composting seems like a manageable place to start.