I was only a child during the Second World War, but for various reasons the conflict seemed a presence in my life, even without the horror there to convince me. Having some connection to the war, everybody no doubt felt the same way. For me, the connection was that my father skippered a merchant ship. My pride was great, of course, but along with the rest of the population, my awareness was increased by rationing and the government’s urge to recycle newspaper, kitchen grease and metal, especially so-called “tin” cans. (Not much if any consumer products were made of aluminum.) We were told, incidentally, that for years the United States had been shipping scrap metal to Japan, and that it was converted to weapons then used to fight against us.
Much of our garage space was taken up with stacks of paper and boxes of cans. The cans required preparation: labels and both ends removed, and squashed with foot to save space. Hammering them flat would have saved even more space, but that action was officially forbidden; I guess some tool or machine had to fit its jaws between the edges. For some reason.
It was the demanding importance of recycling, the special treatment of cans, to be neatly stacked and boxed, as well as the influence of my father that eventually made me the scrupulous recycler I am today. To help the “war effort” was tantamount to saving my father’s life, I sincerely believed. But also, Dad was meticulous in all his actions, probably owing to his career on the sea. So even though he wasn’t home to supervise recycling, his influence worked on me nevertheless, and it remains working on me now. (Recently, for a long while I even recycled kitchen garbage, but a bear, rending the wire compost bin asunder, convinced me to stop.)
For me, plastic offers a difficult challenge. There are grades of the stuff, indicated by numbers within a triangle, all supposedly pressed into the plastic item, and only certain grades are acceptable in Rockbridge County: numbers one and two, instead of the wider range previously taken. But wait! Only the sturdier containers numbered one and two are now acceptable. This change is posted at recycle centers and passed on by attendants. I wonder, though, why some effort wasn’t made to explain widely reasons for the changes. I hate tossing the flimsy ones and twos in the garbage. TV news tells us that our country has trouble finding other countries willing to buy waste plastic. Could that be one reason—do buyers now want higher-class materials? Anyway, the magic number is often elusive: tiny, or obscured by irregularities in the plastic. In one case I found not the number but, instead, a message. After a long search I discovered it on the outer cardboard container. “Consult your local recycling office,” it read. The manufacturer must have been kidding.
But I’ll soldier on, regularly filling my (plastic) trash cans, with paper, plastic, cans and glass, making a mess in the garage as these categories spill over the tops.
For all my devotion, I wish I could say that I’m saving the planet, but I don’t have the satisfaction I had in 1943, when single handed I was winning the war. Nowadays, we learn of plastic debris in the sea. In fact, I’ve read that an estimated 2.4 million metric tons of plastic could be entering the ocean from rivers each year, forming huge circular masses and endangering sea life in various ways. This quantity, I guess, is from litter and deliberate discarding unwanted things. Near my house, on the banks of Buffalo Creek I see tires and an old power lawnmower. The creek enters the Maury and the Maury the James and the James the Atlantic. These items were just too heavy to make the trip. The perpetrators who dumped them haven’t learned that there is no away. Unless we recycle.