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My life in garbage

by Anne Basye


A couple days a week, my shoes are sprayed with apple and orange juice.  

If I’m lucky, that’s the extent of the damage. My blue apron, dappled with refried beans, salsa or clam chowder, tells the story of grimier encounters.

Squirts and splats are par for the course for a Compost Concierge like me. I tend the Zero Waste lunchroom I helped start in a nearby school district. On my watch, kids separate their waste as they carry their trays along a row of colored bins. They put plastic wrappers and straws in the black garbage bin and pour extra milk or juice into a 5-gallon tub near my feet (the shoe-meets-juice zone). Next, they place their empty drink containers in the blue recycling bin. Finally they slam everything else—napkins, spoons and forks made from cornstarch, leftover food, the odd cardboard soup container—into the green composting bin with a satisfy­ing thwack!  

The first lunch period is the messiest. More or less the same height as the bins they are aiming for, kindergartners are also still developing the motor skills required to balance a cafeteria tray. During the elemen­tary lunch, I spend lots of time diving for teetering trays and intervene when youngsters try to empty trays food-side up.

The high schoolers are reasonably compliant and, except for a few snarky holdouts, handle their trays with aplomb.  

The middle schoolers, though—they’re a dream. Three years into the project, they not only know the drill, they’re excited about it. Mostly I dole out smiles and “thank yous” as one kid after another does it right the first time.  

They remind me of myself in the 8th grade—a piv­otal year, as it turned out.

From simple to system

My life in garbage began on Earth Day 1970, when the 8th grade organized the Ecology Club. We planted a tree, picked up litter in the park and designed a bumper sticker—a green and white oval proclaiming “Ecology Now!”

I felt like we were discovering the planet we lived on for the very first time. All around me people were thinking about things such as how phosphates in soap affected rivers and leaded gas clouded the air. A mem­ber of my own stodgy congregation started an organic garden behind the church. Smack in the middle of the tumult, there was a role for me. I could recycle!  

So began decades spent collecting and then separat­ing glass from paper, launching and volunteering for community recycling projects, and persuading municipal solid waste committees to ramp up city recycling ser­vices. Along the way, I read Walden Pond, joined a food co-op, cooked with lentils and garbanzos and made pie crust from scratch. Even after marrying and moving to Chicago, I preferred secondhand clothes and “recycled” furniture to department stores and glossy catalogs. And right there in the middle of the city, in a garden whose soil type was “urban rubble,” I learned to make compost. I also started to learn about systems.

Back in 1970, recycling even a simple glass bottle was just a dream. The Ecology Club would have been hard pressed to find someone to take that bottle. And who knows what they would have done with it?

Building the recycling infrastructure took decades. Each time I staffed the Saturday recycling lot and helped load the van that took my neighborhood’s materials off for processing, each time I testified in front of the Cook County Solid Waste Task Force or the Chicago City Council, I was helping create a system. All those Saturdays eventually morphed into a neighborhood alley pickup route, which became part of a ward-wide pilot program, which culminated in a blue recycling cart behind every garage and a weekly pickup across the city.

Along the way there were arguments—many and heated—over whether to sort materials or mingle them. Conflicts led to best practices, better practices and prac­tices we can’t even imagine. Plenty of flops preceded fleece vests made from plastic and home insulation made from newspaper.

Our Zero Waste Lunchroom is a fledgling system. Before you can separate the garbage, you have to build the backend: lobby the school superintendent, romance the janitors who roll the colored bins to the dumpsters, line up the haulers to take the bins away. That we’ve gotten this far is only possible because the county I live in now invested in a Master Composter/Recycler program (yep, you’re looking at one!) and an industrial-scale composting facility that keeps garden, farm and food waste out of the landfill.

It’s far from perfect; a system based on volunteers is vulnerable when someone doesn’t show up. Mar­tin Luther reminds us that all human institutions are subject to sins and flaws. And yet, look what we can accomplish together when we create a system! If we can do this, what else can we change together?

Anne Basye hopes her 8th graders help her fly in planes powered by biofuel and flush her toilets with recycled graywater.

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