A reader writes … By Carlos R. Acuña

February 05, 2001

"Take out the papers and the trash or you don't get no spending cash … yakety yak, don't talk back." Those are more or less the partial lyrics to the Coasters' hit from the late 1950s, "Yakety-yak," as I remember them. And they remind me how apropos they are today to the county-wide recycling scheme.

For you see, I really can't figure out what all the ruckus is all about regarding the high contamination ratios in our recycle bins. It's actually a minor miracle that the ratio is not in fact higher!

Some people attribute it to the fact that not enough trash bins are supplied for free while the recycling bins are given out cost-free as needed. That may be a problem but I have another theory based on facts I've lived and observed.

Let's reason this out. Who throws out the trash in your neighborhood? Where I grew up it was a chore left to the kids, and I am sure that tradition survives to this day. I strongly suspect that little Johnny, Pepito, Karen and Maria, their ages somewhere between 8 and 13, are the true conveyors of waste and sundry disposed items that end up in those lovely green, brown and black designer bins.


Face it. Most of the time these kids would rather be red-knuckling it in front of the Nintendo or watching "The Brady Bunch" or "Chucky" and, if they are any kind of contemporary kid, resent the unpleasant task of taking out or even sorting junior's diapers from America's junk mail lost among the banana peels and newspapers and unwashed jars and cans.

But someone has to do it as the older sibs — who may know better — not only invoke privilege of age, but use their particular and extremely traditional form of intimidation on them: "Throw out the trash before mom tells me to do it or else." That usually works.

The hang-dog faced child rushes outside with the unsorted disposables and dumps them in the first receptacle at hand, regardless of its color or any tree-hugging scheme the city fathers or the state ordains.

"It's a hard-knock life," as Annie would say.

The literature circulated, as far as I can read, was distributed and intended to be read by the adults in the family who, it is assumed, were themselves the people in charge of taking out the trash; or in the alternative it was further assumed would instruct their children in the ways of recycling.

Assumption one may have failed as some adults may see their roles exclusively as breadwinners, shoppers and food preparers, etc. The kids, as I previously mentioned, are thus relegated to the minor and usually not heavy but bothersome chores.

Assumption two may have failed because some trash-throwing kids may be out of the loop or may even suspect that the color scheme has a purpose but what exactly that may be is an adult secret. Or frankly, in their disgust at being assigned such a distasteful task, will do anything and everything in their power to torpedo an adult-world scheme.

Perhaps the recycling folks could go into the schools where the captive armies of trash-throwers are to be found and make their pitch to raise the children's awareness of the importance to the society and the planet of recycling and further explain the clever trash bin color scheme. Certainly, the El Centro elementary school teachers who have worked like dogs without a contract for an entire year, overextended as they are, and teachers all over the county in general don't need to do that job as well. Maybe then we would see recycling bins with lower contamination ratios.

Now I could be completely wrong. Maybe only adults throw out the trash and it is their sheer perversity at not sharing in the recycling gold mine that causes them to sabotage the recycling enterprise. If so, it's not the first time I've been wrong and it certainly won't be the last.

Maybe the city fathers could conduct a poll to determine who the trash throwers and sorters are in the typical household, or whether the homeowners care enough about the long-term benefits of recycling to get actively involved. The results of that poll would be surprisingly educational.

However, if children, our own homegrown recycling universe equivalent of the Keebler elves, are behind the high contamination, I further suggest a few televised or radio (the children's media) PSAs explain the importance of recycling, dramatize a child sorting out the different types of refuse or portray an adult helping her out. This might prove useful in improving the ratios and could go far in addressing the contamination issue.

Who knows! It may raise the collective environmental consciousness and lower the ratios.

"Take out the papers and the trash …"

CARLOS R. ACU--A is an El Centro attorney.

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