Monday, June 28, 2010

We put the "cycle" in recycle

Photo by dno 1967
Transitional periods are a fun part of life, but time consuming -- which explains why I haven't posted in awhile.

I recently graduated from the University of Georgia and uprooted myself from my Athens apartment to move back to my hometown, Louisville, KY. On the plus side, I have a degree. On the downside, I am now unemployed.

Since my income is next to nothing, I've been cutting back. I don't make as many purchases, I'm living in my parents basement, and an expensive beer has been redefined as PBR (which stands for "Preferred Beer of the Recession" for those of you in the dark).

One of the biggest things I've done is convert extra time into extra money by doing regular maintenance on my car myself as opposed to taking it to the shop. Typically this amounts to quick fluid changes, but recently it led to a frustrating adventure that got me thinking, so I thought I would share.

A few weeks back I flushed my car's coolant system, which resulted in about 4 gallons of tainted antifreeze of which to dispose.

Now engine coolant is some nasty stuff. Basically it consists of ethylene glycol, which is fairly poisonous and can easily kill small animals. On top of that danger, once antifreeze has been running in an engine for 30,000 miles, it collects moderately high levels of heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and chromium.

For these reasons, the EPA recommends waste antifreeze be treated as hazardous material. In most states, simply dumping it is illegal. At best you can flush small amounts down your toilet. More often than not, however, states mandate that it be recycled.

I try to be environmentally responsible and do the right thing, so I set about recycling my old antifreeze. First, I called Auto Zone to see if they would take it seeing as they recycle used engine oil. No dice.

Next, I checked the Louisville Metro Government Web site to see if the city recycling program would be of help. Turns out, the city does recycle antifreeze but "only at the staffed recycling locations."

No problem. A quick check of drop off locations and I find that there are five. The Southwest Government Center is nearest my house, so I head there.

"We don't take that," was the unexpected greeting I received. I was told to drive to an E-Scrap recycling center on Meriwether Avenue.

"We don't take that," said the staff at Meriwether. But I was in luck. A liquid recycling center on Grade Lane recycles antifreeze.

"We don't take that," was familiar by this point. The liquid recycling center told me to drive up the road to Waste Management, the company who handles most of the city's garbage disposal.

This time, a slightly different answer: "We don't recycle that." There I was told that I could just throw it away or dump in in my backyard, so long as no one was watching.

The reasoning behind that suggestion was hilarious. "Back in the old days," I was told, "engines used 100% antifreeze. Now we use that 50/50 stuff, so it's no big deal." I'm not sure if engines ever ran with 100% antifreeze in the radiator, but one half of poison is still poison.

Frustrated, I called the Louisville Metro Government for help, and they suggested I go to a staffed recycling location. Back to square one, and explaining my adventure to the nice woman trying to help. She suggested I try the Central Government Center on Outer Loop.

Success! Finally I recycled my antifreeze. It only took me an entire afternoon of crossing the city in what amounted to a 44 mile journey. Hopefully all the carbon monoxide spewing from my 1992 Plymouth didn't cancel out the good.

Now that my ordeal is over, I just have one question: Why was that so fucking hard?! With the right information, that could have been a one and done trip. Instead, I was bounced around Louisville like a damn pinball.

Still, I couldn't help think this whole scenario was a beautiful metaphor for something I'd read recently in Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff. Leonard describes the cycle that our stuff goes through from its creation to the time we simply throw it away.

Wealthier nations have depleted most of their natural resources by now, so we tend to get materials from poorer nations. Similarly, we often pass the trash buck as well because the hassle of disposal as well as the resultant environmental damage are beyond what we want to deal with.

This perpetual story of "not in my backyard" is lazy and irresponsible. That's sort of how I felt about my city when I was trying to recycle my antifreeze: like I was visiting an endless cycle of accountable individuals ducking responsibility.

In my case, however, I think it would have been simpler to just deal with the damn problem. Simply have 5 locations around the city to handle hazardous waste as opposed to one. This would be infinitely more convenient, and inconvenience is probably the biggest obstacle to environmentally sustainable behavior.

I wonder if the "hassle" of simply accepting responsibility for our own waste on the larger scale is actually less of a pain than making it someone else's problem.

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