Trash Guilt

With a healthy side of recycling guilt

The cucumbers were the last straw. “Last straw” probably isn’t the correct term, because, well … straws. So many straws, will we ever see the last one? And, what exactly did I do about it, this “last straw?” Nothing more than march around the house and rant at anyone who was unlucky enough to be in my path.

Three cucumbers, each one wrapped in plastic, snug together in more shrink-wrapped plastic. Giant, individually wrapped cucumbers, wrapped in plastic and then wrapped in more plastic. What could possibly be a reasonable explanation for this? Why is everything shrink-wrapped and wrapped again in the thing that will surely kill us all?

There are giant plastic boxes of salad; plastic gathered around the head of iceberg; romas corralled in a small plastic clamshell. The grapes in their thick, plastic easy-carry bags, the apples and the grapefruit and the potatoes, all in plastic bags. Individually plastic-wrapped candy in a large plastic bag. All tucked into plastic bags at the checkout, and now we’re drowning in plastic.

I have reusable bags and remember them maybe half of the time. We ask for paper and then reuse it for recycling. We recycle all the plastic we can, saving all the bread bags, pasta bags, cucumber wraps, etc. etc. etc., filling the car with it and carting it downtown to a center that supposedly recycles it. We try. We are fallible, forgetful, distractable. We are human.

But it all feels wrong. Very very wrong. And, maybe the responsibility shouldn’t only fall on consumers. Why are my cucumbers double-wrapped?!

The Guardian ran a fascinating, and very depressing, series about our relationship to plastic — “United States of Plastic.” I’ve been mulling my trash guilt for a long time, but now the plastic is looming. Those double-wrapped cucumbers, plus what I now know about all that plastic I “recycle,” have only compounded my guilt.

Let’s talk about the trash. All my life, I have been afflicted with the ability to imagine stinking landfills every time I drop something in a bin. Even as a kid, I knew that everything I casually tossed still needed to be managed, somewhere. By someone. Or not. Maybe it would just sit on the planet, with everyone else’s piles, forever and ever. I was a kid obsessed with archaeology and would imagine the future, sifting through our detritus and drawing conclusions about who we were.

Who are we?

We are a people who generate a whole heaping lot of trash.

There’s garbage on the roadside and garbage in our cars. There are bins overflowing in parks and at public pools, dumpsters hunched hiding behind office and apartment buildings. Great stinking garbage trucks roar down our streets daily, trailing the smaller, lighter bits of trash, confetti in the air. For most of us, though, this is an invisible problem. Toss and forget, the great trucks will come and haul it away. Away to places that most of us never, or rarely and unhappily, see.

So we toss with abandon. We throw out our clothes, and replace with new cheap clothes that will soon be tossed. EcoWatch reports that every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. Toothbrushes, flossers, lipsticks, and razors pile up. According to Frontier Group, “The U.S. produces more than 30 percent of the planet’s total waste, though it is home to only 4 percent of the world’s population.”

I am a spoiled Westerner and have no illusions about my role in the destruction of the planet. But I have tried, sometimes to a ridiculous degree. When my oldest was a baby, I took cotton diapers and a giant diaper pail on vacation, spending a meager week away washing diapers and feeling righteous. No disposables for me, no sir. That behavior lasted until the third child. We belong to a local CSA, bringing our weekly veggie haul home in reusable bags. But I still put the greens in plastic, ignoring the chastising voice in my head. There’s a man in my town, The Junkman, that I love entirely too much. He brings his truck and his dog to my house every few years and hauls away the garbage that is too big for the roadside cans, the stuff we don’t know what to do with, but don’t want. True, much of it was abandoned in outbuildings by my home’s previous owner (not my fault). And, true, the junkman recycles what he can (he sells the metal). But it’s still me filling another truck with shit from my life. I am the source; I am the problem. As we all are, in our own blinkered, garbage-generating ways.

Example: I need a new bed. After more than 15 years, it feels like time. I wake with back and hip pain, thinking it’s just the slow slide into the grave, but maybe it’s just the bed. What to do with the old bed? No one wants an aging, stained bed — I certainly wouldn’t — and I can’t find anyone to recycle it. Visions of the old bed, sagging atop a heap of garbage, swim into my mind’s eye. More trash. I’m the problem.

I imagine each of us, represented on a cartoon graphic, next to our lifetime of trash. Each of us, here for awhile, constantly generating garbage, until we die and leave it all behind. Our legacy — a permanent pile of trash.

Americans can’t do anything, it seems, without wrapping it in plastic. The ‘enviro bricks’ we buy to burn in our woodstove come wrapped in plastic, on a palette wrapped in more plastic. The new loveseat, wrapped in two layers of plastic. The pork ribs, wrapped in plastic, with plastic wads to fill the empty spaces. And, yes, I know about the pork. Put it on the list, there’s so much guilt to manage, so much questionable consumption to clean up, every day.

Trash guilt, plastic guilt, pork guilt — it’s all just the guilt of modern consumption. Perhaps the answer lies not in the minor adjustments of the everyday consumer, but in larger, more sweeping, actions by those who create all that we consume. Exhausting ourselves on the hamster wheel of responsible recycling and reusing, while those who create the crap we buy continue to shroud it all in layers of plastic, is a fool’s errand. In other words, don’t wrap the damned cucumbers in plastic. I’m trying over here.

Write it down.

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