Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Regret. (Paper Plate Guilt, Redux)

Recycled materials, but where do they go next?

Over on Motherlode, Larissa Kosmos has just confessed to a paper plate addiction–and been excoriated. According to the commentariat, she–a self-confessed-stay-at-home mother–is precisely what’s wrong with America, whining about unloading her dishwasher post-surgery when millions of people don’t have drinking water and million of others who really care about the planet are hand-washing their baby’s diapers using a patented method involving nothing but a teaspoon of water and a bamboo toothbrush.

And here I thought she was taking an amusing, realistic look at the guilt and the calculus involved in adding ecological concerns to our modern life. My mother never gave a paper plate a second thought; I, like Larissa, agonize over every one, and countless other choices. Cloth, disposable or lined? Cold water or warm? Hand wash or dishwasher? Who will take my printer cartridges, my yogurt containers, my egg cartons, my broken grill?

Here’s my confession: At night, I dream about dumpsters.

I fantasize about the days before we knew–when every lunch was a festival of baggies, and the lunch box came back empty, instead of filled with plastic containers waiting to be washed. When pre-packaged snacks were just an expensive indulgence rather than a sin against an overflowing landfill, and I could put a pudding in a kid’s lunch without having a mental argument with myself about how easy it would be to make the pudding, and put it into containers and send those–but what about yogurt? And how would I ever get it into something you could squeeze?

I, too, try–which means that we, as a household, are the proud possessors of literally hundreds of egg cartons, cardboard boxes and washed-out jars waiting for use in various projects. My “Tupperware drawer” is a nightmare of jumbled, mismatched frosting jars and take-out containers that instead of the shiny stackables you see in the stores. Our playroom is filled, at the moment, with toy vehicles made at a recycling fair–which means that some other family has managed to offload its stash of old tennis balls, unwanted CDs and toilet paper rolls into my world, and eventually–don’t tell my kids–I’ll have to find a way to get rid of them. I will reduce, reuse and recycle. It’s just that I don’t always want to.

Which brings me back to that dumpster fantasy. After a glorious indulgence in packaged foods and paper plates, I’d cruise the house with a wheelbarrow. Out would go the huge bag of printer cartridges in the hall, the piles of outgrown clothing awaiting donation, the broken microwave, the malfunctioning laptop that one of my husband’s relatives actually shipped to us on the theory that we would “do something with it.” The egg cartons, the paint cans, the light bulbs that can only be disposed of by some esoteric method I’ve yet to sort out and are currently piling up in a bin. Last year’s slip-and-slide that would be so much easier to replace than to reuse. The plastic containers that housed the seedlings I bought for the garden last year–and the year before that. The headless broom, the busted weed whacker, the aforementioned useless gas grill. If I had a magical dumpster: POOF! all those would be gone.

I know that these things can be disposed of properly. I also know that they’re the embarrassingly cataloged detritus of a privileged life of consumption, and of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” chant, my favorite alternative has long since become “reduce.” But the evidence of my wayward ways remains, and I–busy, lazy, overwhelmed–have to live with it until I deal with it. I try to look at it this way: at least my house full of unwanted stuff is a constant reminder not to go out and buy more of it.

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