The entire culture needs to be recycled

(“Germophobia” is a luxury)

Recently, as I neared my local C-Town supermarket, I saw a middle-aged man standing near a recycling redemption machine. In front of him were several massive clear garbage bags teeming full of the cans and bottles he had collected.

The man looked bloated, exhausted, defeated — his skin grayish as he went through the motions of securing a few bucks. He reached into one of the bags and pulled out an empty, crumpled liter-sized bottle of Coca-Cola.

My eyes happened to meet the man’s eyes just as he lifted the dirty bottle to his mouth. Without any hesitation, he wrapped his lips around the opening and blew air inside. The plastic bottle inflated to a somewhat normal size. (Apparently, the bottles need to be close to their original shape for the machine to accept them.)

I tried to hide it but he saw my grimace. With so much of the world scrubbing any exposed inch of their epidermis in a futile attempt to feel safe, this poor soul had reached an entirely different state of mind. “Taste the feeling” indeed.

There are multiple supermarkets within a 15-minute-walk radius of my apartment. The prices and selections vary. How friendly the employees are can also fluctuate. The cleanliness level is usually consistently okay. What all these establishments have in common, however, is a recycling station.

Just outside the entrance are a couple of machines at which locals can load the bottles and cans they’ve gathered. Once the metal and plastic are in the machine, the loader gets a receipt to bring to a cashier inside in exchange for “deposit” money.

Here’s how the New York Department of Environmental Conservation explains the concept:

New York’s Returnable Container Act requires at least a 5-cent deposit on carbonated soft drinks, beer and other malt beverages, mineral water, soda water, water, and wine cooler containers. A deposit is required on glass, metal, and plastic containers that hold less than one gallon or 3.78 liters.

Unfortunately, due to poverty and the ongoing popularity of unhealthy items like soda, this is a common activity. Even during the widespread fear frenzy in NYC during the pandemic, the lines at the redemption machines remained long. Concerns about the virus were easily outweighed by a desperate need for whatever income was available.

The dull-eyed man blowing into a used, germ-ridden Coke bottle was obviously not concerned about where that bottle might have been. Who touched it? What touched it? How many mouths had been on it? “Germophobia” is a luxury, I suppose.

Over the past decade or so, bottles and cans have become a form of currency in my neighborhood. I walk to a local gym each day before 6 A.M. At that time, it’s often just me and can collectors alone on the streets (excluding a few stragglers still staggering home from clubs). You can hear the collectors long before you see them. They use supermarket shopping carts to transport their “currency” and the rattling sound is both loud and unmistakable.

Some locals see them as a nuisance. Others diligently leave their cans and bottles where the collectors can easily find and access them. Just the other day, I saw a woman run after a collector with a large bag of plastic bottles. It was such a sweet interaction, it brought me to tears — of joy and sorrow.

Social media is filled with examples of such “positive news.” Don’t get me wrong, I get weepy at some of these stories, too. But it doesn’t change the fact that we mostly aim our energy at cheering individual acts of charity but rarely (if ever) point out structural and institutional indifference.

Projects like mine, for example, should not be necessary for a nation as wealthy as the U.S. But, in the Home of the Brave™, they are required and woefully insufficient. Our government is a failure for everyone below the top few percent.

Speaking of failures: “Traditional recycling is the greatest example of modern-day greenwashing,” declares Ross Polk, an investigative journalist specializing in environmental issues. “Recycling is championed as the strategy to enable a cleaner, healthier world by those businesses that have profited the most from the extractive, take-make-waste economy. In reality, it is merely a cover to continue business as usual. Corporations espouse the efficacy of recycling via hollow ‘responsibility commitments’ to avoid examination of the broader negative consequences that their products and business models have wrought. Recycling is good for one thing, though — it helps us dodge the responsibility of our rampant and unsustainable consumption.”

Polk concludes: “After nearly 50 years of existence, recycling has proven to be an utter failure at staving off environmental and social catastrophe. It neither helps cool a warming planet nor averts ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss.”

He could’ve added that recycling is also not a moral or effective way of helping poor people achieve any sense of financial security. The business of recycling is a facade. Any belief that redeeming cans and bottles will help individuals “get by” is equally as deceitful and self-serving as the recycling scam itself.

We’ve spent much of the past two years fearing each other, dreading the act of breathing itself. We went months without seeing smiles, depriving loved ones of hugs, starving children of valuable and necessary non-verbal social input, and viciously turning on anyone who does not march in strict lockstep with the algorithm-induced views.

Some might say the dull-eyed man at the redemption machine has sunk to a different level. In many ways and for many reasons, he certainly has. I might suggest that he’s also transcended some of what passes for normal.

Trust me, this is not some misguided fantasy that the poverty-stricken have it “better.” I’m not Mother Teresa who once despicably stated: “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” My supposition is merely a musing about letting go of the illusion of control and “order.”

If only we could recycle the entire damn culture and start over.

Mickey Z. is the creator of a podcast called Post-Woke. You can subscribe here. He is also the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on New York City streets. Spread the word. Read other articles by Mickey.