I’m certainly not the type to spy on my neighbors. Peeping through open curtains, listening at the screen door, rifling the contents of the mailbox? Not I.
And yet, there was always Wednesday. McKenzie and I take a daily walk through our neighborhood, and my neighbors fairly invited me to espy their choices in reading, eating and drinking.
Around here, you see, Wednesday is recycling day.
Short McKenzie could only sniff along the upper edge of the tubs. I’d give a slight tug on her leash: We’re taking a walk, not examining trash. But after more than a decade of these walks in a neighborhood of mostly long-term residents in single-family dwellings, my sidelong glances at the tubs yielded a picture of my neighbors that they themselves may not have considered.
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I found that we are, for example, health-conscious in choosing juices, preferring orange juice and V-8 and eschewing flavored sugar-water sold as “juice cocktail.” We are a beer-drinking bunch, upscale in choosing craft beers, reasonable in our weekly consumption, responsible in recycling our empties. Wine drinkers are a minority hereabouts, while empty booze bottles are rare.
It was clear we prefer grocery shopping at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and, to a lesser extent, at far-off Costco, leaving Food Lion and Harris-Teeter for the remaining townsfolk.
We seemed to be committed to recycling, with participation at or very near 100 percent. Some households, mine among them, managed to fill only one tub each week, though two tubs seemed to be the norm, while some families made hat tricks.
Like the scoreboard at the ballpark, empty pizza boxes stood straight and tall in their tubs, announcing the choices made the past week: frozen or franchise, large or extra-large, and numbers consumed. Should the numbers have surprised me? If this were a student neighborhood, I’d expect the empty pizza boxes to be stacked curbside like lumber at a construction site. But we are largely middle-aged and up. So, beer and pizza? Sure! Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun out on the back deck now and then.
Some have pointed out that recycling is one of the most voluntary of our volunteer endeavors, returning no immediate reward to those of us who participate. On the other hand, we are told that recycling our plastic bottles allows industry to turn our empties into new ones, rather than using petroleum derivatives as raw material. That makes sense, yet I’m perplexed to see that as we recycle more and more, the price at the gas pump goes up and up. We’re also told that recycling extends the life of our landfill. This is called “waste reduction,” and although Chapel Hill leads the state in waste reduction, our landfill was closed and capped year before last. Is there irony in this? We’re recycling to benefit a landfill that is no longer in operation and has no successor in view.
Regardless, my neighbors and I still recycle, using the wheeled carts now which have replaced the bins. Each Chapel Hill household recycles voluntarily but is assessed a mandatory fee each year to do so, whether they choose to recycle or not. So we participate in our seemingly necessary drill, an event for which the weekly repetition is the event itself. It’s a neighborhood-wide choreography in which the choreographer is the mute blue cart, with its printed instructions: “Have your cart at the curb by 7 a.m.”
But the curtain has come down, so to speak, for McKenzie and me. My neighbors have regained anonymity, perhaps even privacy, now that our tubs have been replaced by the tall, rollout containers – with lids.
William E. Kirk lives in Chapel Hill.