One of the things my mother did that I never did was put washed laundry through a wringer. I have a vivid recall of looking for my mother and finding her in the basement by two large washtubs. She turned a crank that rolled the rollers pulling the sheets through the rollers on a machine taller than me.
I must have been about 5 years old and was deeply curious about what she was doing. I could see it was not much fun and she had little interest in talking about the machine. I watched and when done putting all the wet laundry through the wringer, she took the laundry outside and hung it on the clothesline.
One day when I was a year or so older, my father and mother were very excited about the delivery of two huge white machines that were put in the basement next to the washtubs. Turns out they were the replacements not only for the wringer machine but the wash tubs and clothesline.
I was too young to understand the full significance of having an automatic clothes washer and dryer but not too young to share the excitement.
I am still excited that I can do laundry while preparing dinner, watching television, or reading a book.
I will never forget one relative who longed for a simpler life and was making a point at lunch one day that we needed to stop using all these conveniences.
“You would like to see women going back to pounding soiled clothes on rocks?” I responded. Apparently, my question was a showstopper. He never mentioned it again.
Unless we count stacking old newspapers in bundles to give to someone to sell, my mother did little to no recycling. We had one garbage can outside our back door which was dumped weekly. I do not recall it ever brimming with trash.
Food waste, cans and cartons went in the waste can under the kitchen sink until full and then emptied into the outside can. Paper sacks which held groceries from the market were saved to serve as liners for the kitchen trash can. Some paper was burned in the fireplace.
We were a family of four in the 1940s and ’50s that partially or fully filled our garbage can for pickup every week.
Fast forward to today, husband Paul and I are a family of two. We nearly fill a garbage can which is smaller than the type being loaned out to houses now which is picked up weekly. We fill a huge recycle bin every two weeks for pickup!
I am astonished at the amount of recycled waste we produce first and second the amount of time it takes me to prepare and get recycled waste to the bin.
I have a good idea of where the recycled waste comes from if compared to the time of my mother. Much comes from packaging. When my family bought and brought something home, it was usually in a paper bag and might be wrapped in tissue if fragile or elegant enough.
Some of what we buy today is secured in a rigid plastic covering attached to cardboard which is almost impossible to open if the opener is the least bit arthritic.
A big contributor to our recycling is delivery or bulk buying cartons. I am not complaining about the delivery which allows me to stay home and care for Paul. I do grumble when I spend part of the day before recycling pickup cutting up cardboard boxes so everything can fit in the bin. Food containers such as soda, soup, and cat food cans and plastic containers for fruit or pastry are part of my daily work. All are rinsed of obvious foodstuff. None are empty at the same time and stay on the counter until I can toss them in the recycle. Our kitchen cannot accommodate a recycle can nor does one fit under the sink.
I tend to get grumpy when faced with recycling clutter reminding me that my work is never done.
I contacted three e-experts (my slang for environmental experts) with two concerns. Never mind that my motive was to reduce my workload. It was an important environmental as well as mental health inquiry.
My concerns were two-fold. Was the value of rinsing out cat food cans outweighed by using water, a finite resource?
And was the human resource used to rinse and cut recyclable materials using up time — also a finite resource — saved by the development of labor-saving devices? I do not know anyone who runs cat food cans through the dishwasher.
To the question of conserving water, the e-experts said the issue has not been fully studied at least not by an official agency; however, I was provided with references in which the uses of water in recycling, virgin manufacturing and preparing recycled material for process were studied. What I came to understand is that hand washing or rinsing cans or plastics is a tiny part of water utilization.
I was amazed by one article suggesting that the recyclers use dirty dishwater to rinse foodstuff containers to save water. That would work well, of course if you collected dirty dishwater throughout the day.
Sigh— that brings me to the human resource equation. Apparently, some people save time by not rinsing foodstuff containers according to a recent opinion column in The Seattle Times because accumulated recycle smells really bad (“Resolve to be a better recycler,” January 2024).
I support recycling and I do not want to be a bad recycler any more than I want to be a better one that uses dirty dishwater. I do not see efforts to develop time savers.
One e-expert did offer that I am not the first to complain.
The e-expert sent me a link to an 2022 article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times that reports a successful rebellion against the work of recycling in the 1950s “(Why doesn’t L.A. have piles of garbage everywhere? Many years of fighting,” latimes.com, Feb. 1, 2022).
In short, Sam Yorty, a man who, in 1961 ran for LA mayor “campaigned on the dreadful coercion of housewives forced — forced! — to separate the trash (separating salvageable from not).” He won and took on the city council on behalf of households who could spend six months in jail or pay a $500 fine for not separating their garbage. He and his army of grumpy housewives (the vernacular of the time) won the day by 1964 when the penalties were dropped.
The point is LA came up with a better solution. There is more to the saga than I can report, and I suggest you read it. It may warm your heart like it did mine. I am not nearly as grumpy even though I am staring at a soda can nestled in a cat food can right now waiting to go to its final rest.
I know that housewives in 1950s Seattle were not recycling. At least my mother was not. I do know if recycling existed, she would have made recycling my job which, no doubt, would have made me an even grumpier teenager.
Bertha Cooper, an award-winning featured columnist with the Sequim Gazette, is the author of the award-winning “Women, We’re Only Old Once.” Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 25 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.