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Red Pears with Hydrangeas / S. Shawcross / 16 x 20 / Oil on hardboard / $275
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This weeks feature video:
Sometimes life is just what it is, if not what we make of it. The single best Monty Python sketch ever...
CURRENT COMMENTARY: This article was written in March 2005. Back then we worried about west nile virus and recycling. Now we worry about different things and all these worries have either been forgotten or relegated to the wasteland of regulation. It must be February. I hope you enjoy this one. I quite loved writing it.
Sometimes I get to thinking.... Life is short. You never know... One mosquito and boom! All of the sudden you're in hospital with mad mosquito disease and severe acute repellant syndrome or something. I'm getting older and the time has come as it does in everyone's life when you have to commit to something bigger than yourself. So I called up my boyfriend. "George," I said, "it's time I started recycling."
I know it’s a little late for someone like me to take up this recycling thing after living here in the green hills of Chelsea for over 16 years. I remember the Municipality sent us all those brochures and helpful hints but the only thing I really remember about recycling, according to their flyer, is every second week you put your garbage in the freezer.
Our garbage apparently goes to Cantley. Not to worry, there's no landfill site there. That’s just a pick-up stop where it then gets trucked off to where all good garbage goes: Down Lachute. Its the recycling that gets a little tricky. I phoned Jacques at Chelsea's contracted recycling depot at the Hull industrial park. Chelsea has an excellent record. Only 2% to 3% of the recycling he picks up goes down Lachute. "This," he said, "is what you do: You take your plastic, boxes, paper, metal, glass and your stuff and you put in out on the roadside every other Tuesday."
Now I ask you, how hard can this be? The only thing remotely complicated about it is the triangles on the bottom of plastic containers and Jacques does all that for you. He sorts it by number so all the 2, 5 and 6's go in one pile and all the 1's go in another.
So there I am, sitting at the kitchen table, with the heap of glass and paper and Styrofoam straining to see if there's a number on the bottom of the Delisle Pineapple yoghurt container, carefully stuffing it all into one of those blue plastic bags when it suddenly struck me. "What about the plastic bag itself" So I phoned Jacques.
"Jacques," I said, "I've got a blue plastic recycling bag here full of plastic bags and I'm just wondering...."
"No can do," says Jacques in a manner of speaking.. Well... Not completely. Some weeks he can. Some weeks he can't. "They don't always want them" he told me.
For some reason, this suddenly became the all-pervasive question for me: "What about the plastic bags?"
"Don't blame me," said Fred in Montreal who happens to market the-bags-that-can't-get-recycled. "Don't blame me," said Jennie in Toronto who happens to ship the-bags-that-can't-get-recycled. "Don't blame me," said Gale who makes the-bags-that-can't-get-recycled.
"Garbage," says George, "shouldn't be complicated." What does he know?
Plastic bags aren't just plastic bags. There are different versions of plastic bags: LDs, MDHDs, HDPEs, HPPDs e.g. that can contain slip, pigment, anti-blocks and sometimes POMs. I learned this from Rob who sells reconstituted plastic planks who told me the greatest dupe for the public was the recycling label on anything. "Everything," pronounced Rob philosophically, "is recyclable. The greatest thing about plastic is it isn't biodegradable," says Rob. "Why half of Toronto would end up in Lake Ontario if it wasn't for the stability of plastic in the landfill site there."
"Garbage," I said to George, "is complicated." Take Dale for example.
Dale is one of the ones that will pick up the-bags-that-can't-get-recycled from Ottawa in a truck to take them off to his plant in Vancouver. There on a 5 acre piece of prime real-estate with 7 loading docks he processes 80 million pounds of recyclables and garbage a year. He has baling machines made in the good ol' U.S. of A. that costs $780,000 and can process 34 tons of garbage an hour and he ships the garbage across the pond for $60 a ton to plants in Ningbo, Yantia and Guangho. Yes. In China.
So now I think I've learned a thing or two and I figure I know the right questions to ask a person like Dale. You can't just willy-nilly throw polypropylene bags in with polyethylene bags. Just like me sitting at my kitchen table amidst the Styrofoam and the bottles, even a man like Dale has to sort his garbage, albeit on a larger scale.
"Why should I?" said Dale. "At my plant for what I pay one person here I can have the equivalent of 50 in China. I sort it there. And I defy you to find one child laborer in any of my plants. They're out working in the fields and I give their parents a middle class income of $35 a month or anywhere from 15 to 25 cents an hour. A man can't make money here. You gotta complete the loop. You send it there and bring it back." You have to hand it to the guy. He's got it all figured out and that’s not exactly easy.
"Garbage" I said to George "is really really complicated."
"It's not so simple anymore," said Dale. "Used to be I'd get paid $15.00 for one 16" computer screen and I could fit 1100 of them in a container. But they put the kibosh on that one in the year 2000. Turns out the Chinese government didn't like the mercury that got thrown aside after the locals harvested the microdot of gold in each circuit board.
"Oh well," said Dale, "don't pity me. Pity the guy in Mississauga." This guy had a multi-million dollar machine where you dump in one computer complete with keyboard, printer, console, motherboard and mouse and turn it into a nice tidy bundle of plastic and metal. That was before the year 2000. Now he has 4 million pounds of plastic and metal sitting on a dock with no place to go.
"I'd take it," said Dale "but its got POM in it." Turns out that POM is a form of acetyl formaldehyde something or other that degrades at 300 degrees instead of a 450 like 75% of all the other stuff. Get one part per million of the stuff into your lungs and you start foaming at the mouth. "They'll never get rid of that stuff," mused Dale, "its the backbone so to speak of the plastic industry. That’s the stuff that makes plastic super tough. Like some recycling boxes," says Dale.
"Oh," I said. Somehow it seemed downright pitiful after this to ask my question.
"Dale... what happens to my plastic bag?"
"Oh that. It’s damn hard to get a plastic bag that’s clean. You can wash it. But how are you going to dry it? It's plastic after all. And people are always leaving the paper receipts in their grocery bags which plug up the works. I take anything of course. And we do recycle some of them. Your bag gets picked up, baled, shipped, sorted, processed, reprocessed and transformed and then presto! more than likely six weeks later it'll end up as the plastic sole on the bottom of your shoe that you buy at Wal-Mart. That’s where the majority of low-grade plastic ends up. Now I’m not saying all of them go there. Some do go to a landfill site outside of Ningbo."
"Oh..." I said.
"They're making plastic palm trees now, life size. I defy you to compare it to the real thing. Costs me $150. I'll give it to you for $300. All the way from China."
Turns out Dale makes any kind of tree in plastic, including cedar hedges. I told him I lived in the pristine green hills over here in Chelsea and didn't need any plastic trees, tempting as it was. "Maybe", I suggested, "they might want to spruce up the looks of that landfill site in Lachute."
So I suppose you're wondering whatever happened to my night of revelation about recycling. Garbage you know, is complicated. So is life. Here I was soul searching when it turns out the meaning of life is on the bottom of a shoe from Wal-Mart.
Of course, now I lay awake at night worrying about other things. What does Jacques do with the number 3s and 4s? Who was that scary man who wouldn't give his name who told me to ask "them" what happens to colored glass. "Just ask them. I'm not telling you anything." he said. "It's about money," he whispered conspiratorially. Will they really end up closing that recycling plant in Ottawa because it’s apparently a rat-infested hell-hole weigh-station on the way to China. If they start doing that, who will take all the garbage away from our beloved green hills after Jacques is done with it? There are many things that keep me up at night now. I should never have started this whole dang thing.
As for me, I've figured out my own way of garbage and recycling. I don't throw anything away. Not a thing goes out to the roadside. So far it’s working out fine. Mind you, it’s only been four days.
*This story was written in May 2003. How garbage and recycling is handled now in 2006 is not something I know about. It might actually be something I don’t want to know about.