Monday mornings are marked at Chez Kumquat by the recycling truck’s arrival. There’s a lot of truck noises as it maneuvers in between our building and the parked cars, and then a tremendous crash as the items in the blue bins get hoisted then dumped into the truck -- particularly the glass, which is a bright, unmistakable sound.
It’s the same sound one hears in the early morning at the Oregon Country Fair. The recycling crew starts collecting from the recycling kiosks at six in the morning, but they usually don’t make it back to the dock until the public starts to arrive. The first trickle of people at nine increases to a steady stream by eleven, and all the while that familiar sound of glass crashing can be heard echoing through the trees.
Because it’s the same sound I think people assume that a machine is doing all the work, despite the rustic nature of the fairgrounds. It’s what that sound makes us think of. There’s nothing in that sound to suggest otherwise. I think they picture big truck lifters, conveyors, and automated sorting by weight. Neat boxes ready for the reprocessing center.
But don’t you believe it.
What sounds like objects heading to a sorting-machine on a conveyor is in fact two people dumping a barrel full of cans, glass and plastic bottles onto a slanted grid. This grid sits over a channel, designed to catch all the wet and broken debris. (That’s the idea anyway.) This great pile is then pushed with a rake towards the waiting arms of the sorters, who stand along the sides of wooden chutes. And, armed with not much else besides earplugs and eyeglasses, the sorters pick through the mess and sort everything, one by one.
It’s a lot of material to go through. Material that has been sloshing around with leftover contents and whatever else ends up in the barrels. Soon the dock itself is covered in a wet sheen of “sloosh”, and it is for this reason sorters are outfitted with aprons, to keep at least some of it at bay. (Honestly I found working in a raincoat to be the most successful.)
Each kind of object that is sorted follows different rules. Cans are done by size, roughly, and until you memorize which cans are redeemable and which are not, you must read those little letters on the side. Glass is done by size, one box for this size, one box for that, a special box for sessions and a special box for corona and other Mexican style bottles. These boxes, when full, are closed up and handed off to the people standing up on the dock, who load them into the great big truck bed, to be hauled away at the end of the week.
All this while the surge of cans and glass is pushed towards you. More and more all the time. If you do not help and push the pile down the line things get backed up and crash to the floor, or roll under the dock to the dark inaccessible places -- later to be picked up by diligent individuals with buckets.
Meanwhile, plastics are sorted on the other end of the dock. Plastics are the least uniform and most incomprehensible of the sorted items. Sorted mostly by size (which is difficult to judge at a glance, for all the different shapes), but always driven by whether it is redeemable or not. Just about everything aside from plastic water bottles and soda bottles are not redeemable, with a few maddening exceptions. And until you've a sense for it, each item must be examined. And then thrown to the appropriate bag.
Aside from a few dedicated souls there is no specific crew for sorting. Everyone takes a turn. As each truck backs towards the dock, members of the truck’s team hop out to either dump barrels, rake things, or don glasses and earplugs and take their place in the sort line and get to work.
It is the most chaotic, effective little operation I have ever experienced. In a way it’s indicative of how the entire fair works. Very analogue. We may have several powerstrips at the dock for cell phones -- and many of those are future-phones -- but all the real work is done the old fashioned way. With hands and arms and good music and camaraderie.