Trash Talk

How I learned to stop worrying and love recycling.
Illustrations by

Let me confess. I have been apostate. I have been known to forget to lug my recyclables out to the alley on recycling day. Worse, I often don’t care, and once even told my wife, “Oh, what the hell. They probably take it to the landfill anyway. Recycling’s just a way for boomers to feel less guilty.”

Oh, the blasphemy! And I have further sinned in my heart by entertaining other dark questions of the lapsed. I’ve wondered why, now that our country has been recycling for more than one hundred years—and does so presently at relatively impressive rates (a third of all trash; half of our paper)—these efforts don’t seem to be making a dent in our environmental woes. And what ever happened to the great garbage crisis, anyway? You know, the scenario ginned up by the media back in the eighties, in which we were about to be buried in our own refuse as Old Testament retribution for our conspicuous consumption? Furthermore, if recycling is such a cure-all, why, when I plug the numbers into my personal carbon footprint calculator, does it produce reductions of less than a tenth of what reinsulating my attic did? Really, why do it?

I needed to know if our earliest and most widely embraced sacrament of greening is actually worth it. So I determined to dive into the subject more deeply—as, say, a fallen Catholic might seek answers to his doubts by attending Mass twice a day. Starting in January, I vowed to be earnestly vigilant about my basic recycling, not leaving a shred of newsprint to chance, and to observe its effects on my life. For more than half a year now, my wife and I have been carefully tossing cardboard of various kinds, glass and plastic bottles (including those for detergents and juices), and metal cans into the recycling bin provided by Highland Park, which I have dutifully dragged to the alley each Wednesday morning.

I didn’t stop there. I also researched online and found recycling centers for items that don’t usually get picked up, like Styrofoam. Sometime after Christmas—when we’re bound to have a bunch—I’ll take our packing peanuts to my nearest Mail Boxes Etc. and any big chunks to Foam Fabricators in Keller (other options in Texas include Amazon Forms and Cycled Plastics). Anything hazardous—leftover paints, pool chemicals, batteries, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, cell phones, an old computer—I began stashing in my garage for delivery to the Dallas County Home Chemical Collection Center (you can find centers in your area at At the same time, we became more conscious of “source reduction and reuse”: taking cloth bags to the grocery store so that the “paper or plastic” question was moot (both materials clog landfills); converting most of our mail and bills to paperless versions ( gets you off companies’ lists for almost any catalog for free); using refillable water bottles; and buying concentrates and refills of items such as detergents to reduce packaging.

Finally, in the spring, I took the big leap into what I had always regarded as the black abyss of composting. There was a lot to learn just to get started, but I found two excellent resources at and I spent $100 (including shipping) for basic composting tools: a small bucket to place under my sink for food scraps (veggies, crushed eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, but no meats) and a three-by-eleven-foot swath of thick rubber matting that can be made into an expandable cylinder, secured with plastic nuts and bolts. It remains open on the top (to absorb rain and sun) and on the bottom (to invite earthworms) and has holes on the sides for additional aeration.

As recommended by several guides, I placed the cylinder in a somewhat shady alcove near our fence, where it is conveniently out of sight. Here it receives the prescribed amount of warmth from the morning sun but has enough shade to retain moisture (compost piles should be damp, like a

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