We're in La Have, Nova Scotia, learning how to talk trash. We've got an eight-page brochure about how to sort it and three bins under the sink. And we don't want our neighbors to think we're ugly Americans who can't deal with their garbage.
Here recycling is mandatory; there are garbage police. And if you don't sort your trash correctly, they simply don't pick it up and you have to root through it again until you get it right. And in LaHave, the pickup is just once every two weeks.
In the United States, composting is the province of the odd organic gardener. Here everyone separates out the organics: kitchen scraps, bones, wet paper-like napkins, wrapping paper, boxes, even grass clippings and leaves. Pet detritus and litter appears to be optional: It's organic, but if you have your doubts, they'll let you bag it separately. I've put hair from my brush in the organics, though I'm unsure about its chemical content.
Organics go in a green, lidded bin under the sink and eventually into a green garbage bin outside with an aerated lid, to be collected with everything else. Then gardeners who don't want to keep their own compost pile can buy organic compost from the province for much less than Wal-Mart charges.
Recyclable paper includes newspapers, magazines, corrugated cardboard, and junk mail. But you have to tear the plastic windows out of the envelopes. And people here do just that.
We didn't have trouble keeping organics and paper straight, but things got more complicated when we had to separate true garbage from the recyclables that go in a blue bag. For instance, milk cartons and tin cans are recyclables; whereas chip bags and Styrofoam are true garbage. It does give you a clear sense of what's worst for the planet.
The night before the scheduled pickup we were peering out the kitchen window, checking our neighbor's pile of bags and bins, hoping we were doing it right. Early the next morning I lugged our stuff out to the curb. When the single brown and tan truck came by, they took it all. No notes from the garbage police!
Though it took a few days to get used to sorting the garbage and we kept the brochure handy in the kitchen, we've come to see the wisdom of the system. A single pickup is simpler for the resident and saves the municipality in truck trips, gas, and air pollution. So I started looking into the history and environmental and financial implications of this system.
Bob M. Kenney, a solid waste resource analyst, told me that aversion to organic waste traces back to the days of the bubonic plague, when food scraps began to be carted out of town. But since 1998, Nova Scotia has banned organic material from landfill. Just by separating out organics and recyclables, the province has reduced waste by 50 percent. Canada is also in the process of banning electronics from landfill and will start charging environmental handling fees on things like computers and televisions at the time of purchase.
Nova Scotians are world leaders in recycling and it began with a grass roots environmental movement. Their waste disposal rate (the trash they must put in landfill) is 45 percent lower than Canada's overall rate and more than 50 percent lower than California's.
And all this is profitable. This province, with a population of 940,000, estimates it comes out $31-million a year ahead. This figure includes the profit from selling recyclables to China, the United States and Canada; the jobs recycling creates; and the reduced environmental impact. And as Kenney pointed out, making things from recycled material takes less energy. Most importantly, the public has embraced the process and takes pride in the environmental effort.
I started wondering if the culture up here predisposes people to take ownership of these issues. They've seen a decline in the logging and fishing industries due to exploitation. It's not an affluent region and second-hand clothiers like Guy Frenchy's and Bargain Bob's abound. Junk shops are also common and there's joy in bargain hunting. Generally, it's a frugal, waste-not-want-not place.
When I spoke to Sally Steele, Lunenburg waste reduction coordinator, she added that the severity of the climate here helps people work closely together, gathering wood or sharing tools, for example. She heads up an educational program that introduces "green teams" of students who take the recycling message to other students. In schools, trash is sorted in lunchrooms and classrooms. The recycling motto here is "Reduce Reuse Recycle."
So would such a streamlined and aggressive recycling system work in Florida? It would certainly reduce the times we put garbage out, perhaps to once a week. It would also make us take more ownership over our waste, over the environmental impact of our lives. Maybe it would even accomplish the goal they've set up here: to make consumers consider avoiding overly packaged items and avoiding unnecessary purchases altogether. After all, how much stuff do we really need?
Kathleen Ochshorn teaches Irish literature at the University of Tampa.