Robrt L. Pela does not recycle

I don't recycle. Seriously, if you come to my house and want to toss out your empty water bottle or your paper cup from Starbucks, you can put it right in with last night's leftover sashimi and the packing peanuts from my latest eBay purchase, because there's just one trashcan in my kitchen. There's room under the sink for only a single Rubbermaid bin, and if there were more room, I wouldn't waste it on a second wastebasket. That's idiotic.

I know. I'm single-handedly destroying the planet because I refuse to segregate my garbage. My careless combination of Styrofoam and banana peel, cat poop and candy wrappers is to blame for global warming, higher gas prices, the recent writers strike. So sue me. Call a lawyer. Short-sheet my bed. I don't care. I'm not going to rinse out a tin can every time I eat cling peaches. I'll go off red sauce before I wash and remove the label from a Ragu jar. For me, trash is trash.

I'm not irresponsible. I pay taxes and give to charity and talk to ugly people at parties. I reuse my plastic grocery bags for cleaning out the cat box. I even know the words to "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute," that catchy TV jingle sung by Woodsy Owl, an environmentalist line-drawing from my childhood. I believe in doing what's right. But I also believe that recycling is one of those things, like sponsoring friends in cancer walkathons and buying Girl Scout cookies, that middle-class people do because we feel guilty that we're not worse off. Putting a plastic bottle into a separate bin allows us to feel like we're contributing to a worthy cause — saving our very own planet! — without having to do a whole lot.

Anyway, I always suspected that the guys who collect recyclables in those big blue bins are taking them off somewhere and dumping them in with the rest of the crap we throw out. Or at least I did until I visited the big, shiny recycling plant way the heck out at Black Canyon and Dixileta (a name that never fails to make me titter) that takes in the crap that everyone else in Phoenix tosses into those big blue bins.

The only other time I'd been to a dump was with my friend Janet DeBerge Lange. Janet is an artist who's always in search of stuff for her assemblage art, which depicts childhood angst and Catholicism. So one day, we drove out to a dump in Guadalupe to hunt for shiny things that reminded Janet of sad little girls and Jesus. The old Mexican who ran the dump actually lived there, in a structure made from refrigerator boxes and a pair of Hefty bags. After we walked around for a while, I noticed that Janet had a big smear of dog shit on her bare leg. I went to ask the Mexican for some paper towels to wipe the dog shit off my friend, and he laughed and said, "I don't have a dog!"

This is a true story.

I saw no shit of any kind at the North Gateway Transfer Station and Materials Recovery Facility when I dropped in for a visit last month. "That's because this isn't a dump," Bill Brown told me rather proudly. He's the solid-waste foreman of the facility, and a lot more jolly than you'd expect someone to be whose job title has the word "waste" in it.

"This is a transfer point," Brown explained. But, in fact, the place looked more like an especially well-manicured corporate park than a site where all the stuff no one wants (out of the green and the blue bins) is hauled. It smelled pretty good, too; I was there for hours and caught only the faintest whiff of garbage as Brown and two other city employees showed off their big, shiny enterprise via long, windowed hallways (they called them "viewing galleries") suspended from the ceiling.

There are two transfer points in Phoenix, one north and one south, where garbage and recyclables are taken and sorted. The garbage is then hauled to a landfill in Buckeye. The recyclables are separated, by machine and by hand, and sold to paper mills and plastic factories as far away as China, where they're magically reconstituted into useful products — namely more paper and plastic — then sold again to companies who need them.

At the transfer station, sprayers first wet the recyclables to minimize the dust from newsprint before more sorters yank out garbage and scrap metal from the piles flying past. Farther along, another set of pickers removes still more garbage and cat litter containers, which are made from an especially inferior plastic that's sold, I guess, to a company that isn't quite so picky about its plastic. The pickers are assisted by specially designed machines; one of them uses a giant magnet to extract clothes hangers and tin cans, another uses a series of rubber rollers that allow smaller stuff to fall through into bins on the floor below; still another separates paper from other fibers with a mammoth fan.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela