Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Recycle the Cycle

FIVE summers ago, as I sat by a curb on Mission Viejo in San Francisco on a coverage assignment, the sight of a middle-aged man laboriously dragging a pile of trash – or recyclable trash – mostly plastic soda bottles, empty aluminum canisters, and beer cans meticulously stacked on three grocery carts caught my fancy. I reckoned, he earns dinner money and probably, his rent (assuming he wasn’t homeless) by translating his garbage bounty into cash.
     This enterprising gig is made handy via The Dream Machine, a reverse vending machine manufactured by GreenOps that provides access to on-the-go recycling. Consumers can drop off recyclables and receive points redeemable at either the host venue or Greenopolis.com, an interactive community provided by Waste Management that promotes recycling and rewards recyclers.
     Back in the islands, when I was a kid, I remember a man who visited households on Friday afternoons to trade rice cakes for emptied bottles of all sorts of condiments, spices, and stuff. He then transported these “reusable” vessels to the open market and sold them to vendors—who, in turn, refilled them with homemade and cultured soy sauce, cooking oil, rice vinegar, and what not. The man also collected old newspapers and magazines that were refurbished as bags for rice, salt, beans, veggies, fruits, and sugar.
     Such an ingenious way to recycle, isn’t it? These “consumed” materials didn’t actually go to complex recycling machines—they were simply passed on to the next user, and so on and so forth. Used softdrink (soda) and beer bottles were returned to the store—to be handed back to delivery trucks… I assumed, they’d wash those bottles again and filled them up.
     Imagine how much will the government save if such “recycling cycle” is practiced in America? For example, New York City alone spends something around $55 million per year in recycling efforts, based on 2002 data. As early as 2003, Fort Worth in Texas was making $1 million from their recycling program. But the question is – who earns that dough? Most of these recyclables go to privately-owned MRFs (Materials Recycling Facility). Let’s do the math—billions of dollars go to private companies that recycle our trash… Americans dump an average of 4.6 pounds of trash per person per day, the most in the world. That’d be 1.5 pounds of recycled materials per person per day in the US. Translated, that would be 251 million tons of trash per year.
     Lots of money.
     So is it possible that what I saw when I was a kid in my island days could be done here? I don’t think so… How could that be when we are so scared of catching colds and all sorts of skin infections in case we reuse these used vessels, boxes and cans? Besides, how do we tax these people who collect trash for money? That’s the reason why our carefully sifted recyclable trash are collected separately. These are “golden” commodities—big money to government and huge profit to business…
     Times have changed, indeed.
     A long time ago, hog feeds and dog food were rehashed leftovers. We didn’t use aluminum foils for grilling; banana leaves were a lot better and easy to obtain. There no Goodwills or thrift stores even—people randomly traded clothes and shoes in the same way we traded chicken pork adobo with chicken noodle soup.
     Transactions were easy, uncomplicated. I learned meditation and tai-chi from a 72-year old rice farmer, in exchange for work in his farm. My family’s laundrywoman was the village herbalist and massage therapist and got paid with a dozen eggs or few kilos of rice. Cost of commodities and foodstuff at the open market were not fixed and food staples were mostly negotiated right there. What was called daily interaction is now called business transaction; spontaneous sharing is now “upgraded” as professional consultancy…
     Oh well, oh well—I digress.
     Meantime, I can’t help smile whenever I think about that middle-aged dude in Mission Viejo dragging a pile of recyclable trash. Imagine how many small entrepreneurs in open markets or farmers tailgates would be so happy to buy his merchandise. And how many kids will be so glad to welcome him—and surrender those emptied bottles of Coke and canola oils—for a bag of blueberry muffins…

[From, "The Indie of Asheville," Nov 2011, Asheville, North Carolina]

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