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Thursday, May 13, 2004

OUR PLANET EARTH

Confessions of a schizo environmentalist


I have a confession to make. For the past month I've been suffering from a strange affliction: I can't seem to buy and dispose of plastic bottles without being overcome by a mild case of environmental schizophrenia.

The condition set in last month when I left Japan to begin a sabbatical in Boston, Mass.

My family and I are now living in a neighborhood that is famous for being progressive, and from all indications it is exactly that -- in spades. The streets here are lined with lush trees, carefully tended gardens -- and Toyota Priuses. There are grassy public parks with huge overarching maple trees and colorful climbing frames equipped with thick, rubberized mats so that no falling child will be killed, maimed, or even bruised.

On every block there are signs for classes in tai chi, reiki massage and yoga, and storefronts tout everything from holistic counseling to crystals, candles and organic ice cream. Food stores always offer a choice of paper or plastic bags to customers, and most sell canvas tote bags for shoppers who disdain packaging. If the truth be told, though, I have yet to see anyone using a canvas bag, most preferring plastic.

Plastic bags aside, though, every sort of recycling initiative is under way, both public and private. Groups collect used computers to overhaul and give to the needy; there are collection boxes for glass, paper and newspaper; and special days when the city collects "toxic" wastes, such as leftover cleaning supplies and paint thinners. There are even environmentally friendly cleaners that do not use perchloroethylene, the toxic solvent used in conventional dry-cleaning.

With such heightened social responsibility at every turn, it would be reasonable to assume that an environmentalist would feel right at home. The truth is, however, that after living in western Tokyo for 11 years, my family had a pretty efficient routine.

We recycled milk cartons, bought returnable beer bottles and gave Hachioji City our aluminum, steel and other glass. Our PET bottles went to the local Co-op, our newspapers and magazines went to the PTA's monthly collection, and kitchen waste went into the garden compost. So, in the end, all we had left for the garbage collectors each month was a small bag of burnable and a smaller bag of unburnable garbage.

Thinking back, I am impressed that we were able to recycle so much of our waste in a routine that took just a couple of minutes each week. Still, how can I be suffering environmental schizophrenia in a neighborhood that would make even Ralph Nader smile?

Well, it's like this: While exploring our new neighborhood we have been drinking bottles of water, seltzer and juice. The problem is not that we cannot recycle these plastic bottles. Rather, there seem to be endless deposit and recycling possibilities that differ from bottle to bottle -- and the writing on all of these labels is tiny.

For example, if you buy a 2-liter plastic bottle of Adirondack Co. seltzer water, the label says that you can get a 5-cent refund if you return the bottle in NY, MA, ME, CT or VT (each two-letter abbreviation represents a U.S. state). However, the same label also says, "NJ NH RI PA OH DE NO REFUND," and here the NO means not a state, but "no" -- so you cannot get a refund for this bottle in these six states. But look at an identical 2-liter bottle of seltzer water from Stop & Shop Co., and you'll find something very different: "IA ME MA NY OR CT VT 5 cent REFUND" and "MI 10 cents REFUND."

In comparison, a 450-ml plastic bottle of Minute Maid orange juice offers "5 cent DEPOSIT ME" and "CA CASH REFUND," and a 1-liter bottle of Polar Co. seltzer water says, "CT MA ME NY VT DE 5 cents" and "REFUND MI 10 cents." So, sometimes a state will pay 5 cents, Michigan will sometimes pay 10 cents, and California will pay a refund sometimes, but they won't say how much.

And how about 1-liter plastic bottles of the same size and shape from Poland Springs Co.? A bottle of spring water says simply, "ME 5 cent REFUND," while a bottle of seltzer water says, "5 cents CT DE IA MA ME NY VT" and "10 cents MI." What am I missing?

Maybe my shortsightedness is to blame and I have missed key instructions in some obscure corner of the labels. As far as I can tell, however, there is no simple way of dealing with my burgeoning collection of bottles, short of dumping them all in the trash, which apparently is what almost everyone else does.

Admittedly, this is not a problem vital to national security. Still, here in seeming Arcadia, where one expects more, this anarchy of plastics has given me a mild case of eco-schizophrenia.

So, for now, the empty bottles will stay stashed in our front closet, and there they will stay, I fear, until the City of Boston begins collecting and recycling ANY AND ALL plastic bottles. Or until we move back to Japan, which will no doubt happen much sooner.

Stephen Hesse welcomes readers' comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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