Politics & Policy

Recycling Madness

Suffering from Marquand's Aunt Syndrome.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Herewith a King Klassic on the lunacies of recycling, from her May 3, 1999, “Misanthrope’s Corner” column. Lady Florence fixes the Al Gorean sacrament atop the ash-heap of modern-day idiocies, charging that “The recycling movement has now passed through the cute good-citizen phase and progressed to the point where it is virtually impossible to throw anything out.” It’s a great and typically funny read (particularly Florence’s recalling of the good old days of garbage disposal, when sane people stuffed furniture down the incinerator shaft). Enjoy!

Also a great read is STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, a wonderful book in which NR has faithfully collected and republished each and every one of Miss King’s beloved columns. STET, Damnit is available only from NR, and may/must be ordered (securely!) here.

The spirit of recycling in all its vainglory was expressed by John P. Marquand, author of The Late George Apley. He did not live to see recycling as we know it, but as a scion of Old Yankee Massachusetts he was an expert on the battier aspects of New England thrift.

Engraved on his mind was a boyhood chiding he received from an aunt. One day as he was cleaning out his desk he found half of an old pair of scissors, a single rusty blade with a single rusty thumbhole. He was about to toss it in the wastebasket when his shocked aunt told him that it would make a “perfectly good” letter opener.

This woman walks among us today. We have all heard her condescending voice, seen the high-cut nostrils of her long, thin nose flare with indignation, watched her go so stiff with righteousness that you could pick her up by her feet. Though she is long dead, she has been reincarnated–another form of recycling–as the star of a comedy of errors that has taken America by storm. The play is now in its sixth year and expected to run for ten more, so we might as well open the envelope. Ladies and gentlemen, the winner is…Al Gore in Marquand’s Aunt!

The recycling movement has now passed through the cute good-citizen phase and progressed to the point where it is virtually impossible to throw anything out. I grew up in an apartment building where old appliances, venetian blinds, and the like were disposed of in one sentence: “Leave it out for the janitor.” We put it beside our door and the next day it was gone. What the janitor did with it we neither knew nor cared; some janitors sold stuff for parts, some sold it by the pound to junk dealers, and Mr. Fix-It types had a nice little sideline in secondhand goods. Castoffs were an unwritten fringe benefit of being a janitor and everybody was happy.

The alternative was “Throw it down the incinerator.” I would give anything for an incinerator now. They were a wonderful invention; there was one on each floor and all you had to do was walk down the hall. You could throw anything down them provided it fit, and if it didn’t you could chop it up. We threw a whole armchair down the incinerator when my mother set fire to it with a cigarette. First the pillows, then the stuffing, then the wood a few pieces at a time, then the springs a few coils at a time, until it was all gone.

Our chair’s cremated remains took up a lot less room than today’s environmentally correct burials. To get rid of useless furniture today you must hire a trash hauler to take it to the landfill, or else take it yourself, provided you own a truck and, if a woman, can lift a bureau and don’t mind driving to desolate places like landfills. Otherwise, you have to rent a truck and find two strong young men you aren’t afraid to let into your home. The only guaranteed way to get rid of old stuff is to buy new stuff from a store that takes your old stuff to the landfill for free.

Then again, the landfill may not take it. Environmental guilt is so widespread that your landfill could be run by someone in the last stages of Marquand’s Aunt syndrome. I bought a new air conditioner from a store that promised to take the old one off my hands. I thought it was a free service but they said they had to charge me $25 labor to take the condenser out before they would be allowed to throw the AC away; otherwise the landfill “wouldn’t accept” it. Waste not, want not condensers.

My attic storage room is full of 15 years’ worth of fritzed appliances and electric fans, but with neither janitor nor incinerator I am now faced with taking them unspayed to the landfill and finding out what it feels like to be rejected by a dump.

To encourage people to recycle cardboard, the garbagemen will not pick up cardboard boxes–but neither will the recycling truck. You have to cut them into flat pieces, which is why every hardware store now sells box cutters, a particularly vicious instrument once used only in warehouses but now de rigueur for every good little recycler–and the weapon of choice of preteen inner-city thugs who do not yet own guns, who would not now own box cutters if hardware stores did not stock them for good little recyclers.

The one item I was glad to recycle was newspapers, not for patriotic Gore but for personal convenience, but this too shall pass under a bureaucracy. You can’t tie the papers with string and put them directly on the ground by the curb. You must use the recycling boxes provided by the city, which have themselves been recycled from what feels like old bus tires; they’re heavy even when empty and their handles, instead of being rolled or flat, are so sharp that lifting a week’s worth of three daily papers is like getting a good grip on oyster shells.

I have to take the box down first, then make two more trips with the papers, which intrigues the local liberals who teach at the college up the street from me, who gaze at my struggles from their car windows with quizzical, pensive expressions, obviously thinking, “How come she’s recycling?” followed by, “Maybe she’s not so bad after all.”

Recycling as a political litmus test goes back to the late Fifties when Vance Packard published The Waste Makers and made “planned obsolescence” the buzzword of the decade. Packard, the darling of liberals since his earlier attack on advertising, The Hidden Persuaders, now became the darling of beatniks and other hippies-in-waiting eager to flaunt their capacity for needing nothing, wanting nothing, and living like the “real people,” i.e., Europeans.

They hated anybody who bought anything and quoted Packard’s findings on how much whipped cream went to waste in the bottom of the aerosol can because They want to make you buy more! Their heroes were people who took the trouble to puncture the can, like Packard’s son, and get all of the whipped cream.

This is the spirit of recycling: little people elevating little virtues to make themselves look bigger. Welcome to the Age of Marquand’s Aunt.


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