Recycling: then and now

August 24, 2008

Mom left a flyer on our counter announcing Hazardous Waste Day at the Toledo recycling depot. New to life in the country, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I dutifully loaded up a utility trailer with the items listed.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I headed off to Toledo with my load. A late email from a neighbour led to a stop at his garage to unload most of the used oil for the farm’s machine shop furnace.

With the remainder of my hazardous waste I turned in to the garage at Toledo, only to find no one around. Wrong day? Wrong garage? Cell phones are made for this: I called Mom. She checked the address and called me back. Turn towards Brockville, not Smiths Falls.

Off I went. Then I saw it, this incredible lineup of cars and pickups, stretching back toward Brockville from the township building. I pulled to the right, approached the end of the line and did a u-turn to join the queue on the opposing shoulder. The three vehicles behind me did the same.

And there we sat. Over the course of the next hour and a half my line-mates and I inched ahead: it was likely two month’s worth of grinding on the truck’s starter before the line had wound its way along the highway, in between the nice ladies with vests and clipboards at the gate, then all the way back around the salt shed and out to the unloading area. I kept thinking of how nicely a hybrid would work in this kind of stop-and-go traffic. Can a Toyota Prius pull a trailer?

When they got their turn, the graying drivers hustled about, dropping off paint cans and batteries, used oil and superannuated propane tanks. A host of workers clad in vests helped unload the vehicles. Everyone was polite, but they wasted no time on chat.

Things were a lot different at the good old Westport Dump when we were kids. I used to love The Dump, the wild west of Westport. You could slide anything down that hill that you could physically roll out of a truck, and if you went home with other treasures gathered in exchange, nobody minded.

Target shooting at The Dump was not particularly frowned upon. I remember Don Goodfellow, Bob Conroy, John Wing and I spent one soggy March-break afternoon up there with John’s .22 and a couple of boxes of shells. As the afternoon plinking session wore on, John’s failure to clean his gun complicated things slightly. The rifle was one of those French semi-automatics which starts with the action open, picks up a shell when the trigger is pulled, loads it into the barrel and discharges the round all in one motion. Too much accumulated lead in the barrel prevented a shell from loading, but it fired anyway from the impact. The shrapnel blew out of the side of the gun and startled the marksman of the moment, but fortunately the rest of us were standing behind the shooter as our dads had taught us. Still, it was a lesson well learned. I think it was Don who reamed the breech of the rifle out with a nail file and we shot on until the ammo ran out.

The dump was a place of privacy and lawlessness where one could unload his truck and then, if he wanted, break the windows out of a recently abandoned hulk slid down the embankment. Strangely enough, I don’t recall any of us ever doing that. We preferred to shoot ketchup bottles.

What a change today when I drive into the Portland Recycling Site. It’s a crowd scene like at Toledo, with Subarus and Hondas jousting their way through the line just the way they do in downtown Ottawa at rush hour. Same cars, same drivers, no doubt. Serious people mechanically totter to the various bins, do their business, then rush away.

Even four years ago it was different. I’ll never forget the two smartly-uniformed young women who ran the place the summer we cleaned out the stone house. I immediately dubbed them the Dump Divas, and after one carefully made-up young lady complimented me on my trailer-packing, conceived an absurd desire to please them with gifts of old rockers, 3-legged tables, a pair of seats out of a long-gone Chrysler van, and other such treasures. I’ll never forget this one poor girl in spotless black uniform, perfect hair and makeup, shined black shoes – up to her ankles in some noxious goo oozing out of the pile of effluent behind her as she helped us unload our trailer. She was obviously determined to do a professional job, regardless of the circumstances, but my heart went out to her. Maybe a little law and order at the landfill site is a good idea, after all.

Anyway, the Toledo toxic-waste experience took the better part of a morning, but my half-pail of white lead, my expired epoxy, and even my 33-year-old unopened pail of Styrofoam adhesive have gone wherever recycled chemicals go, and I hope they won’t come back in a toy easily ingested by a future grandchild.

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