In my house growing up, we had one trash bin. Everything we threw out went into it and thankfully, we had a garbage disposal so there wasn’t much smelly stuff, it was just waste from elsewhere around the house. Big black plastic heavy-duty trash bag, out by the curb on a Thursday morning. That was it. If we were at the farm with no trash collection, we dropped the bags off at the dump.
The first thing I remember about conserving anything was a Sesame Street song about not wasting water, but recycling took awhile to catch up. It wasn’t until 1995 that the single-stream recycling system took over in the US, and it wasn’t until more recently that public places started to try and separate their bins according to recyclables. But I have grown up with this whole compassionate movement being drilled into my every day and so I try and recycle, I try and do the right thing, but I’m starting to have a hard time with it all.
Here in Florence, and from what I’ve seen almost everywhere in Italy, there are two ways that trash and recycling is collected: in the cities, there are public dumpsters placed throughout the streets. Some are new and are underground with a little row of trash cans that empty out into the dumpster beneath, making it much cleaner looking, but outside downtown, there will be a row in walking distance from your apartment (no trash pickup because just thinking of people trying to pile their junk out onto the streets gives me nightmares). Each big container is labeled for what goes inside – indifferent (general trash), glass and plastic bottles, tetra pack, etc, cardboard and paper products, organic waste, sometimes there’s one for just glass, sometimes the general trash has a lock on it and only residents have the key – and then the opening is only small enough for what Americans would call a tiny trash can, so if you have more than can fit your shit out of luck and should have recycled more, or at least that’s how it makes me feel. So we have three different trash cans under our sink in our tiny apartment where I don’t even have cabinet space for towels, and technically we should have four.
The problem with this system is that it’s not regulated at all – people can dump whatever they want wherever, and the thought occurred to me that probably half this stuff goes into a landfill somewhere anyway because of how difficult it is to get through the whole process with flying colors. When my family was temporarily living at the beach in New Hampshire, they’d tell me about their challenge with the recycling guy. Apparently there, when they come to pick up your trash, the man inspects each item thoroughly and takes only the ones that are able to be recycled. My mother would watch him go through their bin, trying to figure out what they were doing wrong, why some of their pieces of plastic were rejects. Op – no caps on bottles – got it. The next week, they’d have less until finally, one day they passed the recycling test and won an empty bin. Now that, is recycling.
Yet even with all that hard work, if something wasn’t washed out correctly, it’ll be a no-go. If something is attached to another piece of something that can’t go in a certain machine, it’s trashed. If we even try to recycle little pieces of plastic like straws, they fall through the machines and end up in the noses of poor sea turtles (also what started this whole new trend, though I actually support it and I’ll tell you why in a sec).
Here’s the thing: the more I learn about recycling, the more I realize it isn’t the bright shiny new way to fix our problems, the whole world is waking up to microplastics and just how enormous this problem is – but that isn’t where I go “oh lord I have to better my recycling skills and spend extra time washing out my plastics” I instead look toward the stupid amount of plastic and paper and containers I come home with after a simple trip to the grocery store and start pointing fingers. Listen – if I could walk into the store and not see a plastic wrapper, it’d be much prettier and I would be happier. Rami and I go to the markets when we can and there, we can make it out with a few pieces of paper and our own reusable bags – but they close by midday and the grocery store is open until nine and is much closer.
I used to believe in doing my part to save the planet, but if I never have another straw in my life, it’s not even a drop in the pond compared to the ocean of crap that companies produce and make us buy every day. That’s why I do like the straw thing – because it actually made a difference by targeting companies – big brands like Starbucks. If we kept working like that, then I think that’s better than me sitting here adding another bin under my sink. And I’m not saying I won’t keep trying to recycle – but it just seems odd we’re working with machinery that isn’t that great, and it seemingly never was, and there hasn’t been much of any development in the entire system – even when people are discovering multiple ways that could revolutionize this entire system: plastic-eating mushrooms (WHY ARE WE NOT FUNDING THIS?! GIVE THEM ALL THE MONEY!), and a kid that figured out how to remove microplastics from the water. Millionaires and billionaires throw their money at a burning church, but not at this stuff…
If we’ve realized that plastic is bad, why are companies still creating everything out of it? Am I missing some bill that makes sure that we are starting to find alternatives to plastic in everything from medical care to kids’ toys? We’re focusing on the wrong things here. We’re pointing fingers at each other for not bagging your compost in a compostable bag instead of pointing them at the grocery stores that haven’t switched over from plastic bags yet.
Here in Italy, some restaurants are starting to use dry pasta for straws instead of plastic, which is wonderful, but it’s certainly not all of them, and shitty recycling aside, until the plastic is phased out, we’re going to continue to have a problem – separated trash or not.