The Goldberg Variations: Recycling for Baby Boomers

ColumnIf you can read this sentence without corrective lenses, you are pre-disposed to eco-activism.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not old. Although, to be perfectly honest, I am not exactly young, either. On the continuum of age, I happen to fall at the precise numeric midpoint between Miley Cyrus and Betty White – a piece of pop culture trivia which somehow strikes me as deeply significant. If I had to guess, I would say that I am also somewhere between those two women when it comes to my wardrobe, my taste in music, and my bong habits. But when it comes to recycling, I feel like I belong firmly in the ranks of the elderly.

Recycling, much like computer skills, comes organically to those in their 20s and younger. Being planet-friendly is natural to them, since they have never known a world where newspapers could be carelessly thrown out, along with banana peels and tuna fish cans. For young people, recycling is easy and automatic – it is embedded in their DNA, along with Facebook and an endless fascination with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But the biggest eco advantage for young people is that they can easily read the teeny tiny numbers inside the teeny tiny triangles on the bottom of plastic recyclable goods. Whereas I – squinting, in full daylight, and holding the item as far away from me as my arms will allow – cannot.

Those numbers tell you what a particular item is made of: a number 1 means the container is polyethylene terephthalate, and a 3 signifies the presence of polyvinyl chloride. Items with a number 1 or 2 are the most likely to be recycled, but for anyone over the age of 40 these numerals – especially when imprinted on clear plastic – are almost impossible to read. My friend, Pat, solves this problem by waiting until her kids come home from school before disposing of anything plastic. My own solution is to be constantly surrounded by a ginormous collection of reading glasses.

I used to think of glasses as fashion accessories –  like an extremely functional pair of earrings. When I was young, and didn’t really need glasses to see, I enjoyed the “smart girl/sexy librarian” vibe I thought they lent me. If I liked a pair of frames, I would buy the glasses and wait for my eyes to deteriorate into them. Then came a near catastrophe, when misreading the directions on a medicine bottle almost caused me to give my daughter an overdose of Robitussin. At that point, glasses were no longer an accessory, but a necessity. Today they have become something of a fetish. I have glasses that I keep upstairs and some that stay downstairs; there is always one pair in my car, one in my office, and another in my purse. This past week alone I discovered forgotten glasses in my junk drawer, the pocket of an old winter coat, and under the dog’s bed. And there is one massively strong pair I keep around just for texting.

But the numbers on the bottom of jars and bottles are so ridiculously small that even plentiful access to reading glasses doesn’t necessarily help.  This strikes me a galling example of ageism. The Boomers invented ecology – we are, after all, the generation that dreamed up Earth Day. We should not be carelessly shoved aside by a youth oriented eco culture.  Recycling information should be printed in a font size that even mature adults are able to see. It’s bad enough that people my age can’t wear skinny jeans or two-piece bathing suits anymore – at least let us recycle our Activia containers.

Editor’s Note: Susan Goldberg is a slightly lapsed treehugger. Although known to overuse paper products, she has the best of intentions – and a really small SUV. Catch her column, The Goldberg Variations, each week here at EcoSalon.

Image: e-magic