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Adventures in Recycling

Turtle Island

by DAVID KER THOMSON

The question of how many environmentalists it takes to change a light bulb gained a brief piquancy as we shared a subway platform with David Suzuki yesterday here in Toronto.

“We’re the students of Alpha 2,” we announced gnomically to a bemused Dr. Suzuki as we emerged from the sepulchral gloom of our train car, “and we’re on our way to visit a recycling plant.”  Our train car had been lacking a row of bulbs.  Lacking, perhaps, the very energy-saving light bulbs Suzuki has been promoting so visibly on billboards all over town.  The boys were able to quell for a moment their game, of attempting to push each other onto the live third rail, as they did double-takes at the familiar face of the environmentalist everyone wants for their grandfather.

My usual instinct on sunny days, to dispense with light bulbs altogether, in favor of skylights, picnics, and romps (to change, in short, the person, and not the bulb) was happily in abeyance as we beamed at Dr. Suzuki.

Our type of environmentalist, the kind who gets in everyone else’s way, is not often asked to share a platform with environmentalists who are so physically beautiful at age seventy-three that they could seriously compete for your attention with a panda bear.  Suzuki is, I am happy to report, as cute as a button.  What a moment.  There we all were on the northbound at Union Station.  Fellow travelers, with impeccably dainty carbon footprints.  What would Dr. Seuss have said?

We basked in the glow of this sighting as we made our way down to the shores of Lake Ontario, the fifth largest body of fresh water in the known universe, if you count (as you should) Michigan and Huron as one lake, hydrologically speaking, and if you do not count (as you might) the polar ice caps, and if you remain vague about water deposits on Mars. 

The recycling company is fifteen paces of concrete from the lake and is fortuitously named in accordance with the Anishinabe designation for North America: Turtle Island.  So far so good.

Like many things for me, waste management is unlikely to be as exciting as it was in my childhood in Massachusetts on the edge of an old Algonquian-footpath-laced forest where I lived in the bosom of my beloved family and with the minute-by-minute expectation of the literal pre-millennial rapture of the faithful.  A couple of times in those days I had to race out to the place near the pigs’ slops where I could get a good view and scan the sky for the telltale sign of my brother’s canvas high-top Keds uplifting into a cloud.  After these jaunts, my family would always turn up somewhere more prosaic than the clouds, which was arguably a good thing. 

The downside of the rapture was that you couldn’t start long-term projects, like saving the world or conserving the ecology of wetlands, but the upside was that you could speak your mind to Michael Sibley and if he was about to hit you for suggesting he was down a few marbles, why, he might end up swinging at empty air, which would serve him right.  As if this (or the fact that in that century we put the word “why” at the beginning and in the middle of non-interrogative strings of words) weren’t titillating enough, why, there were always the waste management vehicles, which back then were called garbage trucks and were owned by the mafia, the only corporate entity organized enough to pull off the necessary logistics.  On the business end of each truck it said, “satisfaction guaranteed or double your trash back.” 

We were all as satisfied as pigs in a mudhole.  Italian management and American engineering were a great combination, and this golden age helps to account for my subsequent lack of enthusiasm for modern electoral politics, inasmuch as the latter’s penchant for mass murder lacks the spirit of restrained and classy in-house cullings typical of social experiments based on Sicilian machismo.  Live and learn, I say.

Turtle Island Recycling is a nifty spread.  It’s got low-level moderately downtrodden workers, a passel of mid-level toughs in the form of cardboard wranglers, forklift cowboys, and heavy-machine jockeys, and a comfortable distribution of pencil pushers.  Not too shabby.  Also a black cat working briskly through its nine lives, a machine for destroying out-of-date juice containers, and a lever that tantalizingly reads “Shreadder Main,” which the boys considered pulling.  Neither Milton nor Dante could have asked for better grist for their mills.   

Our Virgil for the day was Chris Doyle, manager of environmental initiatives at Turtle Island.  He was helpful and politely answered the children’s questions, like how much the guys make who were pulling cardboard pieces off the conveyer belt (more than minimum wage, with a little extra to compensate for the nature of the work), what was the nature of the front-end-loader’s work (strong but delicate), and whether he, Chris, had seen the cat (not this time).

As to my suspicions that a certain portion of the dirtier recycling ends up in China, and a generous dollop of our gray bin contributions ends up in Michigan, Chris confirmed the first and referred me to the city for the second.  Since your trusty reporter is unable to maintain, for more than a few moments, the clarity of the distinction between a government and a corporation, no matter how many times various interlocutors have patiently explained the difference, I had to cede future investigations of such phenomena to muckrakers of greater skill than myself. 

I saluted Mr. Doyle’s excellent explanation of a situation featuring a China availing itself of a business opportunity in welcoming the raw materials of our detritus, and feel certain that he is correct on this point. 

The only point of commentary we (at ecotopia or city without cars or nowtopia or seewalk or solartopia or whatever we are this week) feel fully qualified to add is that, if it’s happiness people are angling at, all this cycling and recycling, this sound and fury, seems like a bit of a fuss.  We are determined henceforth to follow recycling guidelines with the exactitude of citizens mimicking our betters, but I feel compelled to confess that the whole business looks like pushing a rock up a hill and letting it roll down for eternity.

No matter.  The day was sunny, and we fled Turtle Island to the mainland across a short span of stainless steel arched above a parallelogram of Ontario’s fossil glacier water, and wended our way amidst castellated coils of cack into the high stone towers of the business district, and there lost ourselves until schoolbells later in the afternoon tolled to remind us who we were.

DAVID KER THOMSON was exploring with students from Alpha 2, the world’s only unschooling or “free” junior high that is publicly funded.  He can be reached, when not romping, at dave.thomson@utoronto.ca