When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Compost

A pile of lemons from the lemonade stands ready to dump into the compost dumpster.
A pile of lemons from the lemonade stands ready to dump into the compost dumpster.

Working for the Three Rivers Arts Festival has given me perspective. I am on the Green Team as a “waste reclamation specialist,” or some sort of bullshit phrase like that which really means trash sorter. For the first 5 hours of my day, I sort through trash bags, picking the compostable materials from the trash items, trying to divert as much waste from the landfill as possible. If a person were optimistic, positive, and creative, it would appear to be noble, sticking your arms up to the elbows in garbage in an attempt to save the planet. But I am none of those things and instead I can only see consumerism, capitalism, and overconsumption. I can feel the hot sticky waste of a consumerist population splashing onto my shirt and arms and face as I stand on a stack of unsteady pallets next to a massive dumpster which sits parallel to the river too polluted with sewage to safely touch. It is so hard to remain optimistic.

The next 5 hours of my day, if my shift lasts that ungodly long, is to go out into the festival itself and stand next to the trash bins marked recycle, compost, and landfill. In addition to these clear markings, there are signs that hang above the bins stating EXACTLY what can be put into each container. Cups, plates, spoons, forks, containers, napkins…anything sold within the festival limits is compostable. It says it on the trash cans, it says it on all of the containers and utensils, it’s not a difficult system. And yet, people walk up to the trash stations and don’t even read the signs. They go straight for the black landfill bin every time.

What’s really funny though is the way people react when you’re standing right there, directing them to the proper bins. Some people are so thankful for your help. Some people are angry. After explaining to an older man where each of his disposable items should go, he ignored me, threw everything into the landfill bin (compostable materials, recyclable plastic water bottles and all) and grumbled about the good old days in America when you could just throw your trash away without “some bitch” telling you to recycle. Another woman came up with a whole slew of compostable materials and said to me “Isn’t it sad that they have to hire someone to explain where this stuff has to go? I mean can’t people read?” She then proceeded to throw everything into the landfill bin and to save her pride, I waited until she walked out of sight before reaching into the bin and putting it all into the compost.

But I’m not naive. I know this is a new system for most people. I also know that even people familiar with backyard composting don’t understand that these containers and plastics (made from corn) can be put into our compost because we’re working on an industrial level.

What I’m not okay with is the rush everyone seems to be in. Having to take the 45 seconds to sort through garbage and put it in the correct containers is apparently too much for the average patron to bear. One of my first days on a the job, I had my head and most of my torso down in the trash bin, picking out paper plates and compostable forks, when suddenly I was hit with plates full of food and an almost full container of lemonade. I stood up and shook the food off of my shirt and out of my hair and met eyes with the woman who had just thrown it on me. “Excuse me,” I said, “Would you mind using the other garbage can over there?” I pointed to a trash station under 20 feet away, kept a smile on my face, and refrained from adding “asshole” to the end of my sentence. “I don’t have time for this,” she said, “my party is leaving.” She then threw the rest of her trash into the landfill bin and rushed off to catch her friends.

And those are the lemons life is throwing at the people who care about the earth. But instead of making lemonade, we are making compost. Instead of suggesting cooperation, we are demanding it. We are asking people to slow down and think about their actions. There’s a sign at the East End Food Co-Op in Bloomfield over the trashcan/recycling/compost that says “Stop Before you Drop.” I wish we had these at the Three Rivers Arts Festival. I wish we were not only telling people to divert their waste, but to divert some of their time away from their hectic schedules.

You’re at a festival for pete’s sake. Calm down. Relax. And live life consciously.

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