Exploring what life could be like if we weren’t buried in clutter, burdened with too many possessions, and surrounded by chaos.

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Why tub lids can’t go into the curbside recycling

April 3rd, 2014 · Plastics Recycling, Recycling

In my last post, I gave the example of TUB LIDS and promised you answers. I know you’ve been wondering this for your whole recycling life: If tubs YES, why lids NO?

The first thing that happens to all the collected stuff, as soon as it is entered into the mechanized sorting system of the Materials Recovery Facility (affectionately called a “merf”), is that a mini-hurricane is applied to it. In duller terms, it is blown with strong jets of air. This is to lift out all the paper, thus separating it from the other materials. The tub lids are light enough that they get swooped up in the air with the paper. Worse, wherever paper gets carried along on a conveyor belt, it meets up with slots along the way where it drops down into waiting receptacles. The slot says “flat things go here.” The lids, of course, are flat — unlike the tubs. The result is that the paper supply gets contaminated with a bunch of pesky plastic lids. In short, because the lids are both flat and light, the machinery thinks they’re paper. So the solution is to keep the lids out of the co-mingled curbside recycling altogether.

The good news is that the ever-popular grocery store chain New Seasons Markets will take your lids! Unfortunately, they only exist here in Portland, Oregon, so if you’re not HERE, I guess that’s not very helpful. But don’t give up. Ask around. Now at least you know that lids are indeed recyclable by somebody, and it’s a matter of finding out who and where that somebody is. I hope you find a place in your town.

Got enough of these damn things stacked up in the garage to pave the whole yard. (I think I'll stick with what we've got, though..)

Got enough of these damn things bagged up in the garage to pave the whole yard. (I think I’ll stick with the pavers we’ve got, though.. as an Oregonian, I’m partial to moss.)

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How much to tell the public

March 27th, 2014 · Consumer Issues, Philosophy, Recycling

Ever feel like you’re not being told the whole story? Well you’re not. And you should be grateful for it, because the whole story is way too complicated. You’d hate it. 

The PR of recycling knows that if you overload people with information they didn’t really care about in the first place, you risk having them shut down completely.


One time I needed to buy tires for my car, and the tire guy gave me so much information about tires that I felt I’d have to go get a master’s degree in tires before I could possibly make the right decision. So I put off buying them, and then since the master’s degree in tires didn’t work out, I never did buy any. I went along my merry way and happily reverted back to thinking that tires were circles made of black rubber. My brain was relieved and life was easy again.

The recycling PR people know that if they do it wrong, the public could revert back to thinking that garbage is something you put into a garbage can and forget about. However, some of the public, such as the writer and readers of this blog, are are a little more curious than average, and have questions they want answered.

Here is one of them: Tub lids. If you can put the tubs into the curbside recycling, why the H-E-double-hockey-sticks can’t you put the lids in?

I’ll explain in my next post.


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Is your plastic rejected by curbside trash collectors? Don’t worry, it’s not about you.

March 12th, 2014 · Plastics Recycling, Recycling, Trash Disposal

As we learned in my last post, if the recycling plant can’t sell it, they don’t want it. Why would they? So if they’re saying “NO, we don’t take x, y, and z,” it’s not because they’re being uncooperative. It’s because there’s no stable market for it. Key word: stable. They can’t take a plastic for a few months and then change their minds — think about how that would confuse the public! So if there’s an off-and-on market, curbside collection isn’t interested.

Which brings us back to our question: “What can I do with my kid’s BigWheel that I ran over with my SUV?” Welp, you’re probably going to have to put that in the plain old Garbage.

 But wait!

 Just to make sure, call Portland Metro’s Recycling Information Hotline: 503-234-3000.

(I’ve got two phone numbers memorized — theirs and my mother’s.)

They have one of the only human-staffed phones left on the planet! (as well as a website ), where you can find out where to take non-curbside recyclables in the Portland Metro area. Brilliant people. No item too obscure. You call up and say, “hey I have a plastic jello brain-mold I’m no longer using,” and they’ll give you several local places you can take that thing to and dispose of it guilt-free!

(I guess this doesn’t help people who don’t live in Portland, Oregon. I hope you have — or will have some day soon — something similar in your town.)

Plastics are a bear. The ifs, ands or buts are bewildering.

Next: Sometimes it’s the SHAPE of it that’s the problem; and other important trivia that’ll help you understand.

Graduate-PlasticsMeanwhile, here’s that scene from The Graduate — in 1967. Don’t feel bad. Ben was confused about plastics too. And that was before anyone even though of recycling it.

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That little recyling symbol: what does it really mean?

March 9th, 2014 · Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling, Recycling

green-recycling-symbolOn plastics, you’ll see a little number in the middle of it. What that number means is a topic for a future post. It’s not what you’d think, and it’s kind of complicated. The good news is there’s only one key thing to remember: 

“Just because something is recyclable SOMEWHERE, doesn’t mean it’s recyclable where you live.”

No recycling plant recycles everything. They have certain equipment, and they have certain markets. They are not doing this because they’re all green-hearted and everything — though they may also be that. But the bottom line is, as always:

They’re in it for the money.

They have to be. They have to sell what they make. They melt down three or four plastic items into little pellets. Then they sell the pellets to a local factory that melts the pellets into flowerpots which they in turn sell to the area nurseries. The pellets have to be right. There’s a recipe, just like cooking. They can’t just throw any old thing in there, or the flowerpots won’t turn out right.

That’s why curbside collection only takes certain plastics — because they have a finite number of LOCAL plants they can take it to. There might be a recycling plant in a faraway land that DOES recycle that other thing, but your curbside collection people are not going to ship it there.

next: Well darn it. What can I do with my kid’s BigWheel that I ran over with my SUV?

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“When in doubt, Throw it out!”

March 5th, 2014 · Garbage, Recycling, Trash Disposal

I know you’ve heard that little maxim. And I’m sorry to tell you that yes, “throw it out” means into the Garbage — i.e., not the recycling. And I know that’s painful for you. You WANT everything to be recyclable — but it’s not.

I used to suffer from the same illness — which by the way is completely based on good intentions: I want so bad for a particular item to be recyclable, that I throw it into my curbside bin anyway in the hope that surely they’ll figure it out.

No they won’t.

It’s not a matter of figuring it out. They either have the equipment to recycle that thing or they don’t. The people at the other end are the sorters. I’ve gone to the recycling plants and watched them work. Worst job I can think of. My job at the skeleton factory was nothing compared to this. Stand alongside a conveyor belt all day, pulling off things that can’t be processed by their plant. The darn thing looks like it’s  moving sixty miles an hour. They have to be thinking and moving super fast every minute, making decisions about every piece that travels by, grabbing the bad ones and throwing them aside. Their brains get all wonky from the moving belt traveling past their eyes all day. They have to alternate sides to prevent motion sickness and other weird effects. And what do you suppose they do with all that wrong stuff? They send it to the landfill.

see the workers moving at a frenetic pace to pull out the stuff that didn't belong in the recycling bin.

See the workers moving at a frenetic pace, pulling out the stuff that didn’t belong in the recycling bin.

We don’t need to be making their job any more difficult. 

So, really: IF YOU DO NOT KNOW FOR SURE that they’ll take it, throw it into the regular garbage. This is a better option, and you are hereby absolved of all guilt when doing so. (And more about that later, in future posts about landfills.)

Next post: But wait. It’s got that little recycle symbol right there on the bottom of it. What do you mean they can’t recycle it?

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I’m baaaaaack! And I’m going to answer all your garbage questions.

March 3rd, 2014 · Garbage, Recycling, Trash Disposal

Yes. I’ve been gone a while. I took a sabbatical — what of it? I’m not getting paid for this. I’m back, and I’m going to quit being such a crabby scrooge about how bad everything is and be more informative about what we can do to help. Especially given that I’m the first one to head down to the party store to buy glittery things when there’s something to celebrate. I love colored foil. Love. And I don’t know what to do about it. Maybe I can make up for it by talking the entire world into recycling the recyclable.

New Tack: clearing up some of the confusion about recycling — such as: Why is the landfill actually not the worst fate in the world for certain stuff? Why can this go into your bin and not that? Where does it all go? Why is it not helpful to crumple your paper into little balls? Why is it no longer necessary to flatten your cans and take the labels off? What’s life like for the sorters at the materials recovery facilities? Why after decades of training us to sort, they now tell us to throw it all into the same bin? Why do we Oregonians separate out our glass while in California they don’t?

I know how you’ve been feeling — just like that guy in Rebel Without a Cause — and I’m going to fix it. Sister Kate will Explain it All to You. I’ll make it easy to understand, and entertaining at the same time. So go put on your playtime clothes and come back tomorrow. Or maybe the next day, at the very latest.


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The seamy underbelly of Halloween decor

October 12th, 2013 · Consumer Issues, Decoration Industry, Disposability, Excess of Possessions, Manufacturing

In the summer of 1975 I got a job in a factory that made cardboard Halloween skeletons. My job was to rivet the legs and arms onto the skeletal torso. As the parts came down a conveyor belt, I would grab them furtively and rivet. Then an arm and then a leg and then an arm and then a leg and then an arm and then a leg and then an arm and then a leg. For eight hours. Standing the whole time. Plus the speed of the belt was faster than the speed of my body. (I’ve only ever had one speed, and this is it.) My own arms and legs were in danger of falling off.

The skeletons were cute, but they weren’t eight-hours-a-day cute. By about the third hour of my third day, I felt that the cardboard Halloween skeleton was a stupid product, and I felt foolish devoting such a large chunk of my life to its proliferation. (At least it made me realize that I needed to expand my skill set, which led me to renew my education vows.)

Fast forward to 2013. The seasonal decoration industry has swollen into a gush of …. what shall I call them? … stupid products. I mean, do we really need to install eighty five polystyrene tombstones and three dozen plastic goblins on the lawn? and line the walkway with a hundred and six illuminating plastic skulls?

Besides, what are you going to do, rent a warehouse to keep it all in till next Halloween? because if I find out you’re throwing them in the trash on November first, I’m calling the popo. Remember, this is Portland, and they will probably come. I’m pretty sure that’s a crime here.

I’m conflicted because I love a festive atmosphere. I am not the party-poop I may seem. Au contraire, I maintain a secret stash of foil confetti that I throw over the heads of dinner guests at every celebratory opportunity. (Later, when the people are gone, I’m groping around like an idiot, collecting every last one of them.)

I’m not sure what the answer is, but can’t we at least be reasonable? Could we maybe make do with three styrofoam tombstones and a rubber witch? What did we use for decorating before they started manufacturing all this crap? Just because it’s being sold doesn’t mean we have to buy it all up indiscriminately.

At least those cardboard skeletons were 100% recyclable.

An example of the decoration bulimia that is sweeping the nation. Each tombstone or other decoration you see here is made out of some completely unrecyclable plasticky material destined for the landfill.

An example of the decoration bulimia that is sweeping the nation. Each tombstone or other decoration you see here is made out of some completely unrecyclable plasticky material destined for the landfill.

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New word: Greenwashing

September 29th, 2013 · Consumer Issues, Multiple use, Toxic Waste, Trash Disposal

I’ve just found the word — I knew there had to be one — for something we’re all seeing an awful lot of these days. It refers to the attempt to make a product or company look like it’s “green” when it is so very not. Here’s a perfect example: remember checks? or as the Brits would say, cheques? They used to come in a little cardboard box, like this:


Now they come in a super annoying plastic bag, like this:








First lie: the bag is green. How dumb do they think we are?

Second lie: The bag contains the message: Cut Pull Reuse. They’re deceitfully trying to echo the three word slogan being used to promote waste reduction, which is Reduce Reuse Recycle. Note that is not at all what this says or means.


The instruction “Cut” is for how to open the package, an indication that it probably isn’t reclosable.

“Pull” is for how to remove the item from the bag — and we should be concerned that anybody who can’t figure that out on their own would be receiving an order of checks.

And as for the instruction to “Reuse” — for what, pray tell, are we to reuse this awkwardly shaped non-reclosable bag? And do we not already have a cupboard full of plastic bags awaiting re-use — many of them practical in size and shape, much more attractive, and actually reusable.

Third lie:  The little spiral arrow you see there under the word Reuse is misleadingly mimicking the well known icon of three arrows spinning around each other that consumers have come to associate with recyclability. A quick glance might fool the least attentive consumers, but not us.

This bag is made of a completely non-recyclable type of plastic, popular as a packaging material because it won’t rip during shipping. Recall that before this material was invented, shipping still happened, and that most items arrived at their destinations undamaged.

The business of packaging is one of the worst contributors to waste in the known world, and if I don’t find a way to do something about it, my next stop will have to be Anger Management Class.

PS: Are you reading this, Harland-Clarke company? We’re on to you! Quit trying to look green when you are so NOT! How about putting your energy and marketing money in to actually being green?

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Recycling School goes to Composting Plant

September 24th, 2013 · Composting, Garbage, Recycling School

NaturesNeeds1I have about thirty classmates. The course is eight three hour classes plus two or three day-long field trips, during which we hit several sites each. Here we are marching through Nature’s Needs, learning exactly what happens to all the yard debris and compost collected from Portland curbsides.


The green guy in the pictures is Operations Manager Jon Thomas, who does a great job of explaining how it all works. There’s a good, short video of the process at this link.

And just for the record, contrary to local fears about how bad this place would smell, I didn’t find it to be stinky at all, and I was standing right in it.


The other predicted nuisance was flocks of seagulls swarming the place to feast on the food scraps, getting in the way of the machinery. The coolest, most ecologically sound solution in the known world? Put the falcons in charge! Yes, it’s true. They have falcon patrol. See the video here.


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I have found my people!

September 23rd, 2013 · Garbage, Recycling, Recycling School, Trash Disposal

I can’t help it — I’m obsessed with garbage, and with how the world is filling up with it. But I’m not alone!  Finally I’ve been admitted to the Master Recycling Program, an educational opportunity coveted by so many Portlanders that there’s a waiting list for it. Yay!

Yay, but boo.

Yay because it thrills me that I live in a city where people clamor to be admitted to Recycling School. Boo because I’ve been realizing recently that this isn’t representative of what’s going on in most of the United States.

On recent trips outside Oregon I’ve noticed that the rest of the country isn’t necessarily on the same garbage truck. This recycling fervor isn’t sweeping the citizenry elsewhere like it is here.

A lot of ecologically minded people move to Portland to “fight the good fight” with us. Well, that’s understandable — who doesn’t want to be on a winning team? And of course, if people must move here, that’s the kind of people we want.

But how about you stay where you are and work on it there? There’s a huge need for garbage-heads to infiltrate the rest of the country with these ideas. Just read this blog, and apply it locally. Also, I hope that out-of-state readers will report in through the comment feature and update me on how it’s going where you are.

Keep checking in. I’m about to become a minefield of information.

Wonder woman angry





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