Monday, 2 April 2007


I'm a great believer in recycling. When I was a kid, our family was the first in our neighborhood to recycle. Over the weeks, my mother would save up all our empty cans -- and given that we were a family of five with over ten cats we generally had a fair number of these about. She would wash and save every glass jar or bottle and carefully pile up old newspapers and magazines and, when we finally had enough to fill the back of the car, cart it all off to the University of California's newly established recycling center. We were their very first customers.

It was a time consuming business. Cans had to be cleaned and crushed flat, which meant that both ends had to be opened. Newspapers and magazines had to be in precise bundles, too. We kids resented having to do this, but my mother appealed to our sense of ecological accountability.

Decades later, when my husband and I lived in Japan, recycling was mandatory. There simply isn't enough spare land in the Tokyo area to accommodate the unrecycled trash of over twelve million people. Glass, cans, paper, cardboard, even plastic -- all of these things and more are recycled in most major Japanese cities, and the rules for what goes where are strict.

On recycling pick-up day, the trash areas are patrolled by a group of ladies you don't want to tangle with. These are generally veteran housewives rougly over the age of fifty, and if you play fast and free with the recycling regulations and try to get away with mixed glass and aluminum, say, you are just making their day. My husband mixed newspaper and cardboard once and got a good telling off for his negligence.

With my own recycling background, I rarely fell foul of these ladies, but I had my own recycling woes. Because I spoke Japanese and not all of the foreigners in our neighborhood did, I was frequently asked to remind them about the importance of following the rules. I am a wimp; I have absolutely no leadership skills or air of authority about me, and I dreaded having to do this. Our foreign neighbors were, variously, an American bachelor with a worryingly active and noisy social life, an Irish couple, and a group of young Australians who all seemed to be over two meters in height. I approached all of them and in my namby-pamby way, managed to tell them about the neighborhood recycling committee's rules. The general response to this was 'No way am I going to all that trouble just for a handful of old bats who have far too much time on their hands.'

In the interest of international harmony, I told the neighborhood trash ladies that the other foreigner residents felt that they were too busy at work to spend much time organizing their trash. I sensed the ladies' indignation, but imagined how much worse it would have been if the other foreign residents could speak Japanese -- or if I'd translated their words verbatim.

When we finally left Japan, I breathed a sigh of relief that I would never again be asked to serve as a go-between in trash disputes. My husband pointed out that in the U.K., recycling was not mandatory. We could toss our bottles and cans into the garbage and never feel a moment's compunction.

But the habit is too well ingrained. Here in Scotland, too, I recycle everything: compost, paper, tins, bottles, plastic, clothes, shoes, toys -- you name it. I even recycle jokes.

Easter holidays began on April the first, and my two kids strongly felt they ought to be allowed to lie in bed until noon. At 9:00 A.M., I knocked on each child's door and bellowed out "It's your turn to clean the cat sick off the stairs! The cat's eaten a mouse and its guts are everywhere! Get down here right now and do it!" Quite naturally, they whined and pulled their blankets over their ears. I give my eldest credit, though. She finally stumbled out of bed, muttering, "Okay, okay -- I'll do it."

April fools! My mother used to get me with that one every time. And that's the third time my kids have fallen for it.


Kim Ayres said...

We do our best at recycling but the local authorities don't make it that easy, with the nearest proper recycle depot at the dump on the other side of Dalbeattie. Sure we can do paper and bottles in Castle Douglas, but not cardboard and plastic bottles.

Mary Witzl said...

One way you can recycle cardboard is to put it in your compost bin. You do need to tear it up first, but this really reduces the amount of trash you end up throwing out -- and it improves the quality of your compost too. I learned this at the Center for Alternative Technology in Wales; they even had samples of the compost they'd added cardboard to, and it was good stuff.

Plastic bottles are a real headache, though. They're bulky and take up space and no one in this household can be bothered to screw them up and throw them in the bin. I've made a few of them into bird feeders, but you can only use so many bird feeders . . .

Carrie said...

I just found your blog (through Mary Tsao's blog) and LOVE it. That is an awesome April Fools day trick and I'm gonna swipe it next year. said...

Hello, Carrie. I am glad to have another blog visitor! I enjoyed your blog on maternal coolness or lack thereof and tried to post a comment on your site, but it got cyber-zapped. I will try again at some point. Kim Ayres (who showed me how to set up this blog) is also a healthy eating fan, as am I.

The great thing about that trick with the cat mess is that the fall guy is so grateful that it isn't true, that s/he doesn't mind being practiced upon. The look on my eldest's face was just priceless -- a combination of extreme irritation and overwhelming relief. I could hardly contain myself.

Decades ago, my mother played that joke on us, and we played it on her. And recycled though it is, it has worked every single time.

Eryl Shields said...

Isn't recycling a nightmare here? Down south you just seperate everything out and the local authorities deal with it. Here you have to physically cart it to different places. I have four full bin bags of bottles waiting in my hall for me to remember to put them in my car and take them to Tesco.

I find the best thing is to be very careful about shopping, I now rarely buy canned goods or things in plastic bottles. Easy now my son's left home. Newspapers are my biggest problem: my compost bin isn't big enough to consume them at the same rate my husband does.

Daisy said...

I love your April Fools joke! Compost is one of my favorite forms of recycling. I live in a part of the US (Wisconsin) where recycling is part of our culture. I hope my children never take it for granted.

Brian said...

Recycling is fairly simple for us . Our block of units has a big bin room , with bins of two colours , and most -- I reiterate MOST -- dwellers do the right thing with them . The big garbage compacters do the rest .
I bought my first recycle bin when we lived in Bondi Junction and then when we shifted to Coogee the bin was transferred north to the Kempsey property. I left it there when we sold and came to live in these units . It did not get a lot of use while we were at Kempsey/Dondingalong as I had instead constructed --from fallen tree logs I split -- a big compost container which I kept filled with cow manure ( bought from a nearby dairy farm in large trailer loads ) and horse manure that I collected myself by the bag full from the next door property . All tht compost went onto the small orchard, as OZ native trees are not happy with too much phosphorusin the soil.
My great compost moment was digging out the heap and finding therein a spectacular looking but rather poisonous snake , called locally a Bandy bandy because of its red black and white banding.
I did not argue with it , though with heavy gloves I was able to take it inside to show the grandkids before I released it . I am , by the way , a herpetophile . said...

Eryl -- I agree, recycling could be handled better here. In Moffat, we have big blue paper bins for each house, and I find we can just keep up with our paper recycling by using those and composting the leftover stuff. But bottles and cans just seem to overwhelm us. I can't imagine how a really large family copes; I suppose they either don't recycle or involve all the children in it. I too try not to buy packaged items, but my husband and kids undo my good work by buying things with layers of padding. The less trash I throw away, the happier I am.

Daisy -- Hello, and welcome to my blog! I have a friend in Wisconsin and have visited her there a few times, in the spring and summer; it is a beautiful state. I know that when I was a kid, I whined about having to participate in the recycling chores. Other families didn't do this -- too much trouble! -- and thus the kids had it easier than we did. Now whenever I visit friends who do not recycle and they tell me to toss the bottles into the trash, I feel uneasy doing so. Recycling, like healthy eating, becomes second nature, so I doubt that your children will take it for granted.

Brian -- I think snakes are beautiful too, though I would keep my distance from a Bandy-Bandy.

When we lived in Abiko, my husband became well known as a person who didn't mind picking up snakes. One day our landlady came over almost in tears: there was a weird creature in her garden that looked like a snake, and would he please come and deal with it? He went over to take a look and found that it was a three-foot snake in the process of eating a large frog. Peter managed to catch it and we took it to the park, acquiring a small procession of children along the way, all exclaiming 'Ewww! What is that, mister? Why's it got those little legs coming out of its head?' etc. It was his finest hour.

Eryl Shields said...

You live in Moffat? Me too and I haven't noticed any big blue paper bins, how odd.

Brian said...

I'll email you about encounters with snakes sometime. You want something fearsome ? Try a goanna !

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Now that is a coincidence!

If you go down to the Town Hall, they will give you a blue plastic container for your newspapers. I live in a large house divided into flats; they gave us one for the entire house, which was not enough, so I had to go and ask for another one. But if you ask, they will give you one.

See you around Moffat, Eryl?

Brian -- All I know about goannas is from the animated movie 'Rescuers Down Under' which features a poacher and his pet goanna, Joanna. So I'd enjoy hearing about real-life goanna experiences.

Kim Ayres said...

So you and Eryl live in the same town? You'll probably discover that you're both that dodgy neighbour the other one doesn't like and is always complaining to her friends and husband about...

Mary Witzl said...

No, Kim -- all of those are present and accounted for! I'm wondering why I haven't run into Eryl yet -- but then it is hardly a surprise, as I tend to stay at home most of the time. Pitiful, really.