It was a normal Saturday of 1986, if it weren’t for the industrial-sized blue bucket that occupied half our shower. Our routine was a bit different on those days during the civil war in El Salvador when a bomb somewhere cut off the water. On this occasion, my sister and I were alone with Dad for an entire 10 days, while mom had gone on an unprecedented (and never again repeated) girls trip to Mexico. Dad was reading in the terrace, forever undisturbed, and our grandma who’d come to help was getting us to bathe. She thought it would be better to dip us little girls in the bucket first, just to get us wet enough to make the soap slide. Then she wouldn’t have to take water out. In theory it was a great idea but as soon as my sister’s toes where in the bucket, she peed on what should have been enough water for a family of 4.
When my dad was told why he couldn’t take his shower, he spanked my sister with his book. It was the equivalent of the hard-cover biography of Steve Jobs. That was our first lesson on how important it is NOT to waste (and one that taught my dad how much it hurts as a parent to discipline your child, as my grandma would later find him apologizing to my sister who was curled under his neck, with crying hiccups).
No shampoo bottle would leave our house with coated inside walls. Once it was “finished” my mom would put in some water, shake it and keep it up-side-down for an extra couple of days; my dad bought one of those special tools that you slide to the end of the toothpaste tube to roll it flat all the way to the tip thereby taking everything out. When that moment came, he cut the tube in half and scratched the inside with his toothbrush for one very rewarding last session (judging by the way he looked at himself in the mirror). You were not to leave the water running while you brushed your teeth or shampooed, nor should you leave any lights on whenever you left a room (a rule not applied in most Norwegian bathrooms).
To me, this was just an endless scroll of rules that kept me from using more than one set of PJs per week (if you consider doing too much laundry as a waste of water…). Recycling was not a familiar concept in my home country. However, all these measures count today as environmentally friendly. In Norway, caring for the environment is like voting: your duty, and recycling is taken very seriously by the authorities, based on the economic efforts put into it.
Taking care of waste at home can seem like a complicated feat, but if you have as many trash cans as paragraphs in the following section, you’ll make it much easier for yourself (and the earth!):
1. ORGANIC WASTE – green bags
I love the last campaign that says “Give the bus your left overs”. People learn through recycling campaigns exactly what happens to waste and how it is of use in their next life. Organic waste is turned into fertilizer and environmentally friendly fuel that is used for busses in public transportation. An old sausage, for example, will fuel a bus for 30 meters. One misconception I had about organic waste is that everything that comes from the earth could go back into it in one of the green bags that the municipality distributes for free. Little did I know that this category is for food left-overs only and flowers or potted plants are not included. I was happy to learn that dirty kitchen paper does go in the green bag. I produce a lot of it and it’s nice being able to throw it in the closest bin!
2. PLASTIC – blue bags
We produce a lot of this waste at home. All plastic goes into a blue bag (also free and available in supermarkets). You’re supposed to wash each yogurt pot/ham pack/cheese box before throwing it. I used to ask myself how clean should it be? And why should I do their job? But after a while I just raise my shoulders and rinse the thing… Plastic has such a wide range of products! And again, I had a few misconceptions. Not everything made of plastic should go inside the blue bag, only packing plastic or wrap. That means no Lego blocks or other toys; no empty pens. Apparently plastic bottles having contained oil do not belong in plastic either, but I checked my canola oil bottle the other day and it did have the “recycle” symbol. Mmmm…Confusing. What about cling wrap? Plastic! And what about rubber?…
This one’s my favourite, simply because it’s less messy than the others. Quite voluminous, but so light! There is a fun contest in Norway to encourage people to rinse and fold their milk and juice cartons: you write your name and phone number on each and you could win a trip! The more cartons you throw, the more chances you have of winning. Isn’t it brilliant?? The less-fun part is when you have to actually throw all this paper. A lot of the big recycling containers have this tiny opening to force you to tear the big boxes into smaller pieces (once again: why do I have to do it??). I used to wonder if staples had to be removed, but it turns out they don’t (good, because I didn’t remove them, I just wondered). What about window envelopes?… They go in as well, together with the window. It’s ok if there is plastic or aluminium foil attached to your paper, it will be removed mechanically. And what about gift wrap?….
4. GLASS & METAL
These also take water and extra work. I rinse them mostly because I don’t like the stench of food cans, but the thing with metal and glass is you need to drop them in a special container, not just outside your home. No worries, there should be one at max 300m from where you live. What about aluminium foil? As long as it doesn’t have melted cheese on it, you can throw it in metal. And what about a broken flower-pot?…
When you buy beer, cider or soft drinks at the supermarket, you will notice a sticker on the side with a value in NOK that can go from of 1 to 2.50. This is the price of the bottle without its content. If you return it into a special machine at the supermarket, you will be refunded of its value with a ticket that can be used to buy anything else (at that same supermarket). I think of these bottles as money and I always have a thought for my parents when I see trash cans in the park full of them after a BBQ weekend. That’s when you know people have more than enough here. When you can afford to throw money directly into the can. And what about duty-free beer?….
6. EVERYTHING ELSE
Last but not least… Whatever you couldn’t fit in any of the first 5 categories goes here. As long as is it not electric or considered to be “dangerous waste”. Rubber, gift wrap, flower-pots and porcelain go into this category. You can use a normal plastic bag, the robot can see blue and green. Other colors are sorted as “the rest”. So this is where it should end, when it comes to trash cans. You will need a couple of extra -but small- special containers for things like light bulbs and deodorant cans (for everything considered dangerous, you’ll have to take the road too). And unfortunetly, you will not get a refund for duty-free beer. It’s plain metal.
In spite of all the focus and money the city puts into recycling (from containers to awareness campaigns), only about 23% of all waste is recycled properly. Some even claim that Norwegian waste is insignificant in comparison to CO2 emissions and that even if Norway reached its goal of recycling 50% of all waste by 2014, it wouldn’t make a significant difference for the environment. My honest opinion is that: a) it’s complicated (lots of rules and things to remember) and b) I don’t like the work that is involved…(you know how many paper cuts I’ve gotten tearing those giant pizza boxes?!)
However: it’s a good habit! What my parents taught me without knowing is that by not wasting and saving on the small things, you are being environmentally friendly. I am not suggesting you should stop wearing a bra, start growing hair under your armpits and join Greenpeace, but I believe producing less waste will preserve your wallet and the environment.
I don’t think about CO2 emissions, or about the karma of a ketchup bottle when I stand in front of my 6 trash cans at home. And it’ s not like I feel I’m “saving polar bears” either, but I like to think that by recycling properly I am doing my part, because it’s their planet too.
PS: if you want to know where ANYTHING goes, check out this website: http://sortere.no/