My O.C.: Love and Landfills

Marriage is complicated enough without having to live as a secret recycler

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A crack has formed in my marriage of 25 years, and I don’t see a way to repair it. I feel doomed to a life of senseless arguments and accusations, and I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the City of Huntington Beach.

The problem began one sunny day a few years back when a big truck pulled up to our house and delivered a recycle bin. That blue receptacle has forced me to deceive my husband in ways I never dreamt possible. Until then I’d lived in ignorant bliss, but now, everything has changed.

At night while my husband sleeps, I slip out of bed and sneak into the kitchen. No, I’m not a secret eater out to nab an illicit brownie. It’s worse—I’m a secret recycler. Under cover of darkness, I dig through the kitchen garbage, pushing aside wet coffee grounds and day-old cat food to gather bottles, cans, and jars. Then I quietly put the recyclables into plastic grocery bags and take them to the bin in our side yard. I’m pushed to these drastic measures because I married the anti-recycler.

He’s not a bad man. He simply refuses to recycle. “The city isn’t paying me to do it,” he says. “And besides, we didn’t have kids so we’ve already done our bit for the environment.”

His theory is that the negative exponential population growth caused by nonprocreation has earned us a cap-and-trade credit. This entitles him to pursue his lifelong dream of leaving behind the world’s largest carbon footprint. He really believes this; he also believes he deserves recycling credit for regifting unwanted Christmas presents.

My husband accuses me of being addicted to recycling, and maybe I am, but I want a better life for the children of Orange County, even if none of them is mine. I’ve asked friends what I should do, how I could end this deception, and many tell me they are living with the same problem. Though I still have no answer, I’m relieved to know I’m not alone.

From what I can tell, most marriages include one rabid recycler and one who just doesn’t care. It must have something to do with the opposites-attract theory. But identifying this disagreement has not led to a solution; it has only led me deeper into the fearful, underground world of the secret recycler.

For a long time I managed my late-night marauding without detection, but my constant anxiety required me to devise a cover story. If caught, I’d say, “I forgot to water the tomatoes.” One night, though, my husband pointed out that, in January, we had no tomatoes.

“Don’t you want to be green?” I argued.

He shook his head. “Only Kermit is green.”

Since then he sometimes secretly follows me on my nocturnal rounds, flips on the lights, and delights in trapping me in full deer-in-the-headlights mode. Denial is impossible when a plastic bag filled with a dozen smelly cat food cans protrudes from under my robe. “Well, aren’t you the best little recycler?” he says, as if to praise a 2-year-old who’d finally mastered the potty. Sometimes he just says, “Can’t you just give it a rest?” It’s a good thing we wrote our wedding vows because, though I promised to love and honor, I left out that pesky part about obeying.

This has become a cat-and-mouse game, and he now sets traps to catch me in flagrante recyclo. He’ll leave empty bottles as bait on the kitchen counter—and wait. And when I believe he’s safely in his workshop, I make my move. Then it’s all “Wild Kingdom.” Out of nowhere, he pounces, and I go down like a gazelle at the watering hole.

He once piled cardboard boxes to overflowing in the trash bin because he knew I’d be compelled to move them to the recycle bin. That night, as I was about to perform the delicate transfer, I tripped his newly installed motion-detector light. Luckily, in deference to the neighbors, he’d forgone the siren.

To make life in my house even more difficult, Huntington Beach has banned free plastic bags—the very containers I use to sneak recyclables out of the kitchen trash and into the recycle bin. At this point, I’m convinced it would be easier to hide an illicit love affair from my husband.

I resent the wedge of dishonesty that recycling has driven between us. I also resent that trying to keep the environment clean makes me feel so dirty. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” I argue, and my husband says, “You’re absolutely right. All you have to do is stop pawing through the garbage.”

Because of his tenacity, I’m ashamed to say that, for a time, I’d almost given up, only recycling when he was out of the house, which, with a retired guy, isn’t often. My lack of perseverance, though, left me wracked with guilt because then all our trash went into a landfill.

My husband contends that eventually the landfill loses its “fill” status and just becomes land, which we need more of, what with the growing population to which we did not contribute. So in the long run, he believes he’s actually helping humanity. I’m not sure I buy that argument, but after much discussion we reached a compromise that honors both of our beliefs: I’ll continue to discreetly recycle, and he’ll continue to object. That solution may not be perfect, but at least it ends the sneaking around.

Nothing I say will change my husband’s mind, and I’m tired of fighting with the man I love. Honestly, we’re just recycling old arguments.

Illustration by Pushart
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue.

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