Tuesday 27 March 2018

Recycle my arse

For all its information content most dialogue is about equivalent to riffling through each other's fur looking for lice and skin-flakes. Ethologists call the physical activity allo-grooming, and immunologists recognise it as having utility in reducing the pathogenic load. When you stop your colleague in the corridor to ask "how was your weekend?" and promptly zone out before you hear the answer, you're engaging in vital social activity: sniffing the pheromones; gently reinforcing the pecking order; checking out for signs of infection. We all have stereotypical greetings which really have no meaning; my "Hiya!" was so often interpreted as "How are you?" [really don't care, me] that I switched to a faux-Geordie "Ay-oop" to lower the number of "Fine, thank you" responses. Nevertheless, because we all come from different backgrounds, sometimes someone's cliché seems strikingly novel and witty. Two cases last week were new to me. "I'm like frozen peas, always present" in answer to my enquiry about whether a colleague would be in the office during this, non-teaching, week. "The dog at home has more chance" as the assessment about whether one of our, not stupid, mostly idle, often absent, students was likely to secure enrollment on a higher degree in the UK.

That latter reminded me of the "My Scotch maid could do better" which launched Mina Fleming as an astronomer in the late 19thC. The fact that Fleming left school at 14 didn't prevent her from seizing the opportunity and sorting out the universe. Obviously, not every early school leaver in 1870 made good in this way; at least partly because the others didn't have the same levels of grit, openness and smarts as young Wilhelmina. There are plenty of people wandering around just barely competent to carry out the tasks which their work assigns. There is no point in getting angry with such people, even when you are forced to have time wasted by their bumbling incompetence. Someone has to do what they are doing and all the more competent people are doing more interesting things with their day.

One of the current corporate acronyms is CPD - continuing professional development - this laudable aspiration is all too often vindicated by offering a talk or, mote likely, a workshop. This allows the  box-tickers to believe that a roomful of people have had an "every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better" experience. Too often, in reality, the only benefit in the session is free coffee and croissants. You know how much the organisers care by the quality of the biscuits. Not quite CPD, but I spent a short hour last week in a "recycling household waste"" workshop. My Roomie at The Institute cancelled class brought along her Environmental Science students. That was unfortunate because it meant 8 wasted person-hours rather than just one [mine].  It wasn't a workshop in any case because the facilitator stood up on the stage in our biggest lecture theatre and talked at us for a while about what was and was not currently acceptable to the Irish Waste Industry.

Well what about plastics? They aren't all the same: there's PTFE, BPA, PVC, PE, PP, HDPE, LDPE, PET. I really must get out a definitive Blob on the matter because I keep forgetting which is which. The Lady of Recycling LoR reduced the plastic rules to "the scrumple test": if you can crush it in your hand then the waste industry don't want to know. That seems to be barely suitable for a kindergarten explanation. A colleague next to me required clarification: "I can crush a cottage cheese tub, but you say that's acceptable in the green bin". There didn't seem to be an answer to that.

Having been thus 'instructed' in the rules, LoR then started to audience-engagement part of the workshop by emptying her uneditted household recycling bin on the floor of the stage and picking up each piece of trash in turn to ask "Green or Landfill?". This was marginally interesting because it gave us an unwitting insight into the garbage this women fed her teenage family. But there is limited didactic benefit to be had from calling "Green" every time a water bottle is waved in the air. Not even good pantomime in a "she's behind you" sort of way. And I don't mind admitting that, it being after my lunchtime sandwich, I zzzzzzed off for several minutes of this watching-paint-dry excitement. I didn't wait for the end of the bin because I had a class to teach and she seemed to show no sign of flagging in the exposure of her grocery packing. My following lecture of war stories in the world of comparative immunology was a) better theatre and b) more informative. I know that because one of the students said "That was interesting, thank you" at the end of it. I haven't had that much of an accolade since I taught in South Africa at the end of the last century.

We've managed quite well thank you without a waste-collection service. We incinerate the toilet-paper; recycle the glass, steel, aluminium, cardboard and whatever is currently acceptable in the recycling centre. About twice in three years we load up the car and drive to the landfill. Last time I went, in 2015, it tipped the scales at €26.50; just barely above the €25 minimum. By contrast Pat the Salt, living town gets a bill for about €400/year. At least, when we carefully sort our waste, we are working for ourselves to save a bit of money. To my mind the waste industry treats consumers like the garment industry treats its workers in Bangladesh and Indonesia. You have to wash your trash and then pay the company to take it away and sell it. It is no wonder that people throw up their hands and lurry everything into the landfill bin; that way you don't get wrong-footed and finger-wagged for not being up-to-date in the shifting rules of what's profitable to recycle.

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